In this picturesque region outside Santa Barbara, most of the local chatter centers on the nearby Michael Jackson trial and the continuing tourist boom wrought by the hit movie "Sideways." But neither pinot noir nor the "King of Pop" were on the agenda this weekend at a conference of Republican activists, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) was the focus.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger was expected to call for a special election in November to let California voters decide whether to clamp down on spending, change the way electoral districts are drawn and make it harder for teachers to win tenure.

Many attendees characterized the special election as Schwarzenegger's latest move to restore political sanity to the state. But there was little doubt they also view the high-stakes showdown as the best way to strengthen GOP presence in California, where Democrats held every statewide office until Schwarzenegger won the 2003 recall election (search).

The prospect of a special election and earlier budget proposals by Schwarzenegger already has provoked protests from teachers, public employees and the state's majority Democrats, setting the stage for an expensive partisan battle.

Most controversial of the governor's proposals: the spending cap and a separate ballot measure requiring public employee unions to get members' permission before using dues for political purposes. Both are viewed as a direct attack on Democrats and their labor allies.

"The governor has been reduced to using the office he holds to break the backs of Democrats in the bluest of blue states," said state Treasurer Phil Angelides (search), who plans to run for governor in 2006.

In a conference call with reporters Sunday, Angelides said recent comments from Republican activists suggest the special election is little more than a GOP power grab.

"He's become the leading spear carrier, the leading edge of the Bush agenda," Angelides said of Schwarzenegger. "And he'll end up being the best organizer of Democrats in the state."

The annual Republican retreat at the wine-country ranch of former state Assemblyman Brooks Firestone is an opportunity for GOP activists to socialize and hear from candidates seeking their support. Most speakers at this year's event concentrated on the special election, saying their party's future and Schwarzenegger's political prospects hinged on the outcome.

"If we all come together, those initiatives will pass, and if those initiatives pass in November, we will have a lot of statewide officeholders the following November in the year 2006," said Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado.

Schwarzenegger has characterized the redistricting (search) measure as a nonpartisan move, often touting the fact that Democratic and Republican lawmakers have expressed misgivings about his plan to put a panel in charge of drawing congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

But even the governor's chief of staff, Pat Clarey, made clear that the success of that initiative is likely to boost Republican power in Sacramento.

"The Legislature that we have right now is skewed to the left to a point where we can't get anything done," Clarey said.