Democratic strength in recent presidential elections has left California Republicans nostalgic for the last actor-turned-governor — Ronald Reagan (search) — and looking toward their new one to improve GOP prospects.

Republicans say privately President Bush has little if any chance of capturing the state's prize of 55 electoral votes. Contemporary history and math also indicate John Kerry (search) should keep California in the Democratic column — Bill Clinton (search) won the state in 1992 and 1996, Al Gore beat Bush by double digits there in 2000 and the president's approval ratings remain in the low 40s.

Nevertheless, Republicans see a wealth of opportunities on the horizon, due in large part to shifting population growth and the broad popularity of their new governor — Arnold Schwarzenegger (search).

"I have always maintained that California is far more competitive than pundits believe," said former Gov. Gray Davis, the Democrat who was recalled by voters and replaced by Schwarzenegger last year. "Democrats can't win this state on the cheap. Kerry has to spend money here, and I believe he knows that."

Political strategists largely credit excitement about Schwarzenegger with helping to increase Republican voter registration in the state, cutting the advantage for the Democrats from more than 10 percent in 2000 to about 8 percent.

Organizers of the Republican National Convention and Schwarzenegger aides are trying to reach an agreement on how to showcase him in New York in late August. The Schwarzenegger camp is pressing for a prominent role — perhaps a prime-time convention speech — that organizers have not yet offered.

But unlike conservative icon Reagan, who served as California governor from 1966-74, Schwarzenegger is a moderate on social issues such as abortion and the environment, putting him at odds with Bush. Schwarzenegger largely has kept his distance from Bush, even while serving as honorary co-chairman of his re-election campaign.

Schwarzenegger declined to appear publicly with Bush on the president's last trip to California, attending a private fund-raiser with him instead. Schwarzenegger's Democratic wife, Maria Shriver, joined Kerry in Sacramento during his visit to the state in March.

Bush's most optimistic political advisers believe California will be in play this November only if Schwarzenegger remains popular, the state party meets White House fund-raising and registration goals and the governor agrees to put his political capital on the line for Bush in September and October.

Others say the odds may be even longer, and Kerry's lead in polls would have to narrow before Bush would consider investing in the state.

Kerry's advisers insist they won't have to compete in the state. Even assuming the worst-case scenario — that Bush pulls even in state polls — Kerry's advisers say they wouldn't advertise in California until the last week of the campaign.

Republicans point to the state's changing population patterns. While Democratic strongholds such as the San Francisco Bay area have been bleeding population, growth has exploded in traditionally Republican areas such as northern San Diego County and the so-called Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, where cheaper housing and new roads have lured thousands of families.

Said Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie: "There is no downside to us competing in California, and having it be real."

Outside a Starbucks in a sprawling new community north of San Diego, Jeanne Chronis, a 37-year-old mother of three, straps a fussy toddler into her maroon minivan and provides one reason why her family feels so comfortable living in this sprawling "exurban" community.

"I'm a Republican, so I'll vote for President Bush. I've just been a supporter of what he's done, with the whole direction he has taken," she says.

But Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll, said California's most significant demographic trend — the rapid growth of the Hispanic population, who still vote overwhelmingly Democratic — presents Republicans with their greatest challenge.

"Republicans have a long-term problem there, and they have to stop the bleeding," DiCamillo said. "Maybe with Schwarzenegger in office, it might."

But Garry South, a longtime strategist for Davis and other Democrats, argues that Republicans have largely blown the chance to build on their gains by choosing candidates for other offices who are either too weak or too conservative to win statewide.

Two-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is favored to defeat former Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican who holds conservative views on issues such as abortion.

"Schwarzenegger is an aberration — Republicans still have major problems in this state," South said, noting that Democrats swept all statewide offices in 2002, an otherwise heavily Republican year. "They have shown no depth, no capability with the kind of run-of-the-mill candidates they run, and that includes George W. Bush."

Still, South concedes, "I've been warning Democrats for years that they should not delude themselves into thinking that California is irretrievably in the Democratic column."