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California Republicans tackle image and appeal at state convention

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during the third session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida Augu
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during the third session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida Augu

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California Republicans kicked off their annual convention on Friday with an ambitious agenda aimed at remaking the party and a promise to reclaim the once red but now blue state dominated by Democrats.

The convention in San Francisco's Burlingame suburb began after months of strategizing and fund-raising led by former Republican state senate leader Jim Brulte. In a state where Democrats control both legislative houses and every statewide elected office, Brulte is charged with helping to revive the party's moribund operation.

"The party was a million dollars in debt, we had no real decent donor list ... we had closed down our Sacramento office ... and the Burbank office was in disrepair," said spokesman Mark Standriff, a former employee of the state Republican party who was re-hired to help rebuild. "We want to get the party back to what it should have been over the past few years."

About 1,000 delegates and guests were expected to attend the weekend convention, where former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national Republican chairman Reince Priebus will speak. Also expected are appearances by businessman Neel Kashkari and California Assembly member Tim Donnelly, who are vying to replace Democratic Governor Jerry Brown this year.

Last year, Priebus and the Republican National Committee released a blueprint for a $10 million nationwide campaign aimed at women, ethnic minorities, young and gay voters, who solidly chose Democratic President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

In California, the party of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon has declined as the state's demographics changed and many voters were alienated by the party's sharp move to the right, which was led by religious conservatives and Tea Party activists.

Many Latino voters, alienated by anti-immigration measures supported by former Governor Pete Wilson in 1994, have yet to be won over.

Last month, the state released a report that showed 29 percent of voters were registered Republicans in 2013, down from about 35 percent in 2005. Democrats, by contrast, increased their registrants in the same period by just under one percent.

"Clearly, recent elections and voter registration trends represent real challenges for the Republican Party this year," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

SAN DIEGO TURNS, DEBT FALLS

Republicans recently won back the mayor's office in San Diego, a onetime conservative stronghold, after Democratic mayor Bob Filner resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Much of the debt that had burdened the state party has been paid as a result of fundraising by Brulte, the staff has been replenished and the Sacramento office has reopened.

The recent election of State Senator Andy Vidak to a seat in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, which had previously voted Democratic, has also bolstered the party.

Vidak is frequently mentioned by Republican leaders as an example of a candidate able to win over women and minorities. His spokeswoman, Jann Taber, said obligations in his home district near Fresno would keep him from the convention.

On a broader scale, Standriff said the state party wants to keep chipping away at the state legislature while helping Republicans retain control of Congress.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Toni Reinhold)

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