SAN JOSE, Calif. – Every six weeks, the Republican Party chairman has traveled to California, a large and solidly Democratic Party stronghold. With Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) as governor and the state's most conservative areas growing rapidly, Republicans are sensing an opportunity.
Democrats have won the last four presidential contests in California and maintain overwhelming majorities in the congressional delegation and legislature.
"There's tremendous opportunity here because of the governor and his leadership, and because of President Bush and his leadership," Mehlman said in a recent interview.
Mehlman nonetheless faces steep challenges in making his party competitive in California.
Bush lost the state by 10 points to Democrat John Kerry last November, and Schwarzenegger is engaged in a bruising battle with teachers, nurses and other Democrat-leaning interest groups over government reform measures he's proposed to curtail their influence. Polls show the governor's popularity had dropped below 50 percent.
But analysts have noted several population shifts that suggest potential for Republicans to expand their reach.
California is home to nearly 37 million people - one of every eight Americans - and is projected to add as many as 11 million more in the next two decades, roughly the equivalent of the state of Ohio. But while population growth is slowing in left-leaning coastal areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco, it is accelerating in more conservative regions such as the Central Valley and the Inland Empire area east of Los Angeles.
The state's large Hispanic population, long staunchly Democratic, has become somewhat less so in recent years. Bush won 32 percent of California's Hispanic vote in 2004, up from 28 percent in 2000. Schwarzenegger won about a third of Hispanic voters in the 2003 recall election even though Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Hispanic, was also on the ballot.
Mehlman has seized on those trends, traveling to California every six weeks this year for outreach work in Hispanic, black and Asian American areas. On a recent visit, he addressed a Hispanic community center south of Los Angeles and a black leadership forum in Sacramento, and held several fundraisers and meetings with GOP lawmakers.
In his outreach to ethnic minorities, Mehlman said he stresses the party's commitment to economic self-reliance and traditional family values.
Still, most analysts believe Republicans have a long way to go to repair the party's image among Hispanic voters, after a 1994 ballot initiative promoted by GOP Gov. Pete Wilson to deny social services to illegal immigrants. Since then, Hispanics have lined up solidly with Democrats.
Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said Republicans since the Richard Nixon era have spoken of outreach to Hispanic voters but have done little to increase their numbers in the GOP.
"The bottom line is that the dynamics of the national Republican Party have produced a consistent pattern of behavior. In even numbered years they talk a good game, but they don't deliver on issues of jobs, education and health care," he said.
But Torres didn't dispute that Republicans may make inroads in California if Democrats aren't vigilant about their own outreach and recruitment efforts.
"I always worry about the next election. I never take anything for granted and that includes the Latino community, and that means going to red areas of the state where we don't usually show up where we need to," Torres said.
Schwarzenegger may have complicated Republican efforts to recruit Hispanic voters with his criticism of the federal government for lax border controls and his praise for the so-called Minuteman Project (search), a controversial civilian patrol that has helped capture hundreds of illegal immigrants in Arizona. Bush has denounced the group as vigilantes. In California, Mehlman calls for a comprehensive immigration policy that includes better border enforcement and a guest worker program for migrants already in the United States.
"We need to understand we'll never control the border unless and until we also recognize the reality that there are certain jobs Americans don't want that folks are going to come here for," Mehlman said.
Schwarzenegger's immigration comments aren't the first time he has publicly broken with administration policy. He also supports gay rights, legalized abortion and stricter gun controls, and has cut sharply to the left of the administration on environmental issues. Last week, he unveiled an aggressive plan to combat global warming by setting goals for reducing California's emission of greenhouse gases.
Mehlman said he's comfortable with the nation's best-known Republican governor taking positions at odds with the Bush administration, and he downplayed a magazine interview last month in which Schwarzenegger said growing the Republican Party was not part of his mission.
"We're a big party, and we're a party where people will disagree on some issues while agreeing on what it means to be a Republican," Mehlman said.