Image: McCain volunteers Dustin Thai and Alexis Haftrani
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
Republican volunteers Dustin Thai, left, and Alexis Haftrani help set up at the new regional California headquarters for Sen. John McCain. The presidential hopeful boasts he can carry the state's 55 electoral votes.
updated 7/7/2008 2:53:25 PM ET 2008-07-07T18:53:25

John McCain is starting a California campaign that might already be over.

The Republican presidential candidate opens a handful of political offices this week in the nation's most populous state, the historical turf of Reagan and Nixon that in recent years has become a Democratic fortress in presidential contests.

The Arizona senator boasts that he can win California's 55 electoral votes, the biggest prize on Nov. 4, but he's running as the Republican successor to GOP President George Bush, whose approval rating is at an all-time low in the state. Three of four voters say the nation is on the wrong track, and McCain's opposition to abortion rights and his support for the Iraq war and offshore drilling leave him out of step with a potentially decisive swath of Californians.

A Republican hasn't carried the state in a presidential contest in two decades, and Al Gore and John Kerry notched double-digit victories here. Democratic voter registration is inching up, while the Republican slice of the electorate is shrinking. The growing ranks of Hispanic voters — possibly 20 percent of the California vote this November — tilt Democratic.

The numbers are so daunting for a Republican that Bush didn't bother to contest the state in 2004.

Beyond the political environment — McCain campaign manager Rick Davis calls it "among the worst in modern history for Republicans" — McCain's biggest problem in California could be a tight budget.

Television is typically the only way to reach voters across the vast state, home to 38 million people. A statewide run of TV ads can cost several million dollars a week, and those prices could be an impediment for McCain in a race where Obama is expected to have a financial edge.

Schwarzenegger evidence of an opening?
McCain "is likely to get outspent 2-1 nationally. He's going to have to be very careful about which states he targets," said Michael Schroeder, a former state Republican chairman who was political director for Mitt Romney's California campaign.

For now, "he has no chance here because he's not trying," Schroeder said.

The campaign offices opening Monday are being financed by the California Republican Party, not the McCain campaign. They will serve as headquarters for McCain's workers and volunteers in the state, as well as other GOP candidates.

McCain has a single paid staffer in California.

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For evidence of an opening, McCain supporters point to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican with moderate social views, celebrity credentials and a business-friendly outlook who is in his second term. They see McCain as sharing some of his traits — a willingness to work across party lines, a green streak on the environment and centrist appeal. But Schwarzenegger supports abortion rights, as does the other statewide Republican officeholder, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Schwarzenegger's 2006 campaign spent millions to drive up Republican turnout, relying on a vast computerized storehouse of voter information. But a key to the governor's victory was winning more than half the independent vote and one of four Democratic votes, a benchmark that could be out of reach for McCain in a year when voters want dramatic change in Washington.

Video: Inside the campaign war room "While Democrats dominate, we've also seen the right Republican can win in California," said campaign adviser Adam Mendelsohn.

For California voters "the overriding thing is the desire for change. It's so powerful here, it's almost insurmountable," said Mark DiCamillo of the independent Field Poll, which closely tracks the state's political climate.

Mix in the troubled economy, and "the outlook for Republicans is dismal," DiCamillo said. "For McCain to even get close in California would be a major success."

McCain's advisers are guarded in their predictions and there is no indication yet how much money, if any, the campaign will gamble in the Golden State. McCain won the California GOP primary in February with an all-volunteer operation, but Republican turnout was anemic compared to the number of Democrats who went to the polls.

In a briefing last month, Davis did not include California on a list of key battlegrounds. But he suggested McCain could be a surprise in a state where the fastest growing political party is no party at all; independents make up about two of ten voters in California.

Republicans barred independents from the primary in February, a group Democrats allowed to vote. That means McCain must convince some voters who've already cast votes for a Democrat to flip.

"This is a group of voters where John McCain has a unique appeal, and where we can make inroads in this historically Democratic state," Davis said, alluding to McCain's reputation for departing from Republican orthodoxy. "We need to reach out to independents and disaffected Democrats, because they now represent the largest portion of swing voters and the greatest electoral bloc up for grabs."

President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, was the last Republican to carry California, which for years favored GOP candidates like Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.

But since that win in 1988 the population growth in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other urban centers, a jump in Hispanic residents and the state's identification with environmental conservation has tended to benefit Democrats, particularly in presidential races. In addition, Democrat Bill Clinton showered attention on the state during his two presidential terms.

Republican registration now stands at 32 percent, compared to 44 percent for Democrats. Independents account for 19 percent.

Enthusiasm for McCain, especially among conservatives, is a question mark. George H.W. Bush won 241,000 votes in the 1988 primary in Orange County, long considered the state's Republican heartland. McCain, in the February primary, got 142,000 votes there.

McCain's record of working with Democrats on immigration reform and campaign finance and of breaking from the White House on global warming could help him with some important voter groups.

Recent history isn't encouraging, however. Bush adviser Karl Rove promised to launch a huge grassroots campaign in California in 2004, which never happened. Bush spent more than $15 million in California in 2000, then lost to Gore by 12 points.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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