California Republicans are leaving their weekend gathering enthusiastic about their prospects for retaining the governor's seat and replacing their most reviled target, three-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Strong candidates for each office and their own rising anger over government spending have given the GOP faithful hope for a big year at the polls. But that success will turn largely on whether the party can reverse its long decline in voter registration in California, a Democratic state where independents who lean left are the fastest-growing voting bloc.
Despite an aggressive push to turn that around, helped in part by a $250,000 donation from gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman, it's still far from clear whether that effort will have much chance in a state that is increasingly diverse.
"Now is the time to strike, while the iron is hot, encourage those people who are now identifying with the party to register," said state Republican Party chairman Ron Nehring. "People who are turned off by what the Democrats are doing in Washington."
Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive of eBay, told delegates in Santa Clara this weekend that the voter registration drive has already yielded 100,000 new Republicans and that organizers hope to reach 500,000 by November.
It's an uphill climb for the GOP in California, where about 7.5 million voters, or 45 percent of the electorate, are registered Democrats and Republicans make up 31 percent with 5.2 million. To win statewide, candidates must secure substantial support from decline-to-state voters who now make up 20 percent of voters.
So far, Republican dreams of turning blue districts red aren't materializing, said John Burton, chairman of the state Democratic Party. He questioned whether voter dissatisfaction is being solely directed at Democrats, or at Republicans who have blocked legislation in the U.S. Senate and in the state Legislature.
"When people start focusing on the election, they're going to start realizing that the Republicans are a party of no solutions," he said.
Wealthy candidates who he said are out of touch with average residents won't resonate either, Burton said.
"I don't think two billionaires like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are going to turn anyone on."
Republican candidates are veering to the right in their policy positions and rhetoric as they try to win over conservative June primary voters, and some worry that a strong wave of anti-illegal immigration fervor from some candidates this weekend could hurt the party's efforts to expand its base and attract Hispanics.
Gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner told delegates Saturday night that he would cut off state-funded services to illegal immigrants and called the border with Mexico a national security threat.
"As governor, if I have to, I'll send the National Guard to the border," said Poizner, the state insurance commissioner. "If that doesn't work, I'll send the California Highway Patrol to the border, and if that doesn't work I'm going to send the California Republican Party to the border."
His speech was met with cheers, unlike an address earlier in the day from state Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria who has often been at odds with his party. He urged officials to make a genuine effort to talk with would-be Latino voters.
About two-thirds of Californians who are eligible to vote but are unregistered are Latino, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
"We can't go out and have a fiesta and have tequila and mariachis and tacos and think that they're going to register as Republicans. That's not going to happen," said Maldonado.