SANTA ANA, Calif. – A signed photo of first lady Laura Bush (search) hangs with a collage of Republican presidents on the wall at the new Lincoln-Juarez Opportunity Center. The GOP wants the message to be clear when residents of this heavily Latino city walk inside.
"We want to show that hey, we care for the community. There's a perception out there and we want to make sure that perception doesn't stick," executive director Jenny Korn said.
The community center founded by two Orange County Republican clubs is one of many GOP efforts to improve the party's image in California as President Bush prepares to make another play for the nation's biggest campaign prize - 55 electoral votes.
Favorite son Ronald Reagan (search) could count on those votes. But for the last decade, the state has gone solidly Democrat. This time, Republicans are energized for an uphill battle to reverse the trend.
Bush enjoys a 61 percent approval rating in California, while Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search) is facing a recall effort that has gathered more than the necessary signatures. Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful organization of an education ballot initiative has raised his stock as a GOP campaigner, and a potential statewide candidate.
The Lincoln-Juarez Center (search) and the Republicans' attempt to devise a new national immigration policy could help heal the rift between the GOP and the state's substantial Hispanic population. The rift dates to former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson's tenure in the mid-1990s and his tough policies on immigration.
"The concept that to me is the most important is every citizen of California's vote can be earned," said Gerry Parsky, a leading Republican who was Bush's California chairman in 2000. "You may not be able to get them to register Republican, but you can earn their vote for a particular candidate, and I believe this president is that kind of candidate."
The president has plenty of resources to use in California. With an expected $200 million warchest and no primary challengers, Bush could spend substantially more than he did in 2000 to try to make the state competitive.
Even without winning California outright, Bush could wreak havoc for his Democratic opponent. Since it's almost impossible for a Democrat to win the White House without California, the more Democrats have to spend to defend the state, the less they'll have for battleground states.
The task won't be easy.
Democrats hold a 1.4-million voter registration advantage, and the state GOP is still rebuilding after years of strife between conservatives and moderates. However Davis fares in the recall, Democrats won every statewide office and kept their legislative majorities in last fall's election.
And then there's Proposition 187 (search), a blight on the GOP's reputation among Latino voters. The 1994 ballot initiative - championed by Wilson - would have barred the state from providing public services like health care and education to illegal immigrants.
One purpose of the Lincoln-Juarez center is to help the GOP overcome the legacy of Proposition 187 by providing area residents with a range of services, such as bilingual reading and writing classes, financial literacy courses, assistance with filing out immigration forms and referrals to other nonprofits.
Center chairman John Cruz said the idea grew out of a desire of local Republicans to separate themselves from the state party's negative image.
"It's an unfortunate state of affairs that the Republican Party has been tarred and feathered, in some cases unfairly, in some cases justifiably, with being anti-immigrant, racist, intolerant," said Cruz, a business attorney and Bush appointee to a federal employee dispute resolution board.
Cruz is working with congressional Republicans on an immigration proposal that could include allowing Mexicans to cross the U.S.-Mexico border freely if they're employed in the United States. He said he expects the Bush administration to propose a plan or support one by the 2004 election.
According to Korn, the center's executive director, Republicans may open similar centers in other heavily Latino areas.
"It shows that people who support Bush and who would vote for Bush, these are the kind of people they are and this is what we are going to do in the community," she said.
Whether that message will reach their intended audience is unclear.
"Down this street, they only speak Spanish, and a majority of them - they just don't watch the news or anything," said Iris Hurtadl, a Nicaraguan-American who works near Korn's center. Hurtadl, 22, said she wouldn't vote for Bush because she opposed the Iraq war.
Democrats dismiss the Republican efforts as "window dressing" that won't overcome their voter registration advantage or the public discontent with the struggling economy.
"We attack 'em, like they will abandon the state," state Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland said, describing past efforts to goad the GOP into spending there. "We'll be saying it all next year: 'Republicans will abandon California.'"
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, a prolific Democratic donor, said he's prepared to spend millions independently in the presidential race when the timing is right, "not for a particular candidate at this point, but on behalf of the anti-George Bush contingent."
Nonetheless, Republicans see signs of progress as they reach out to Latinos, Asian-Americans and women, and target areas like San Diego, San Bernardino and Orange counties, the Central Valley and the coast.
The GOP has reduced the Democratic registration advantage by about 250,000 voters since the 2000 election, state figures show.