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Moderates Try To Push Calif. GOP Toward Center

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Conservative Republicans flexed their newfound muscle in Capitol Hill's chaotic debt showdown, but in left-leaning California, moderates are trying to push the party toward the center on immigration, guns and gay rights as the 2012 elections come into view.

The latest friction in a long tussle between conservatives and centrists in California comes as leaders search for ways to make their candidates more competitive in a state where Democrats control the Legislature, hold every statewide office and enjoy a growing registration advantage. It also mirrors tensions playing out nationally as presidential contenders maneuver in advance of next year's primary season.

A proposed rewrite of the California Republican Party platform retreats from opposition to same-sex adoption, domestic partner benefits and child custody, avoids any mention of overturning Roe v. Wade and drops a demand to end virtually all federal and state benefits for illegal immigrants.

Alarmed conservatives say the party's core principles are under assault.

"It's castrating conservative ideas," said longtime party activist Mike Spence. The proposed changes suggest "the Republican Party doesn't believe in anything."

The proposed changes come as Washington conservatives have displayed new clout in the budget and debt debate and appear out of step with some ascendant leaders in the GOP who have been pulling the party to the right on fiscal and social issues.

Yet advocates for the changes say the California party needs a makeover -- it's outnumbered in registration and appears poised to lose control of more legislative and congressional seats after a once-a-decade recasting of district boundaries.

To them, the platform should be primarily focused on the economy and jobs -- the top concern for voters.

The draft does not erase opposition to abortion rights or support for traditional marriage and gun rights, but it gives them less visibility.

The current platform, adopted in 2008, says state guns laws "disarm law-abiding citizens" and calls for the end to waiting periods to purchase firearms and inclusion of a right to carry concealed weapons in the state constitution. In the proposed version, a single sentence is included on gun ownership, saying the party supports Second Amendment rights.

A detailed section titled "The Right to Life" vanishes, including a call to reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. It would be replaced with a single sentence on the protection of innocent human life, and the word "abortion" never appears.

The proposed platform states the party "supports traditional marriage," a significant rewrite from 2008, when the platform said marriage should be defined as between a man and woman, and schools should not teach homosexuality as an "acceptable ... lifestyle." Californians have twice voted to outlaw same-sex marriage, but a federal judge last year declared the latest ban, known as Proposition 8, unconstitutional. The ruling is being contested in court.

It also drops a sentence opposing assisted suicide, as well as a line saying the party supports stem-cell research "that focuses on cures, not destroying innocent human life."

The draft platform "is pro-life, anti-tax, pro-family," said Leonard Lanzi, a member of a party advisory committee that endorsed the proposal, which is expected to be reviewed at a state Republican convention in September.

"It's brief, yes, but it's not complicated," Lanzi added. "I think this is a platform that will appeal to a broader group of folks."

In a state as large as California, it's never been easy to define a typical Republican. Is it former conservative Rep. Bob Dornan, known as "B-1 Bob" for his support of military programs, or Meg Whitman, the politically moderate billionaire who ran the most costly campaign for governor in U.S. history in 2010 and lost? Is it a conservative icon like President Ronald Reagan, or former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a political chameleon who called himself an "Arnold Republican" and talked about transcending party labels?

State GOP Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said he considered the platform dispute routine but declined to discuss specifics of the proposed changes.

"It's been approved by the drafting committee. It's got to make its way up the ladder," Del Beccaro said. "I don't think the ultimate result, when we adopt our platform, will be much different than it was four years ago."

On immigration, the tentative changes represent an acknowledgment of the state's changing face. Hispanics accounted for about 80 percent of the increase in registered voters in the state over the last decade, according to pollster Mark DiCamillo of the independent Field Poll. Broadening Hispanic support "is the single most important matter that faces the California Republican Party," DiCamillo said.

The current platform calls for the denial of most benefits to illegal immigrants, would require immigrants to learn English and makes English the official language of the government. In the retooled version, it says the federal government should secure the border and reach an agreement on immigration reform.

The latest numbers for the California GOP are not encouraging.

In 2010, when Republicans scored big victories in Congress and statehouses around the nation, California Democrats made a clean sweep of eight statewide contests.

Despite a booming population, California counted more registered Republicans in 1988 than it does today. The party is in danger of slipping under 30 percent of registered voters statewide -- Democrats hold 44 percent, or an edge of 2.3 million voters. Independents outnumber Republicans in 14 of the state's 53 congressional districts.

Hispanics could eclipse non-Hispanics and comprise the largest racial or ethnic group in the state by 2020, and they tend to vote Democratic. Independents -- about 2 of 10 voters -- generally tilt left in California, too.

The last Republican to carry the state in a presidential election was George H.W. Bush, in 1988.

Ultimately, it's not clear how much good a remade platform will do at the ballot box. It's candidates who win or lose elections.

To political scientist Jack Pitney, the party has been divided by bickering factions since 1854, its founding date.

"It's possible to have a broadly conservative party that doesn't agree on every specific," said Pitney, who teaches at Claremont McKenna College. "The guy who was able to thread the needle on this was Reagan -- he was able to include the moderates."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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