updated 2/19/2004 2:47:49 PM ET 2004-02-19T19:47:49

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses delegates Friday night at the California Republican Party Convention, he will be more than the vanquishing hero who took down a Democratic governor in this state’s historic recall election last October.

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He will also be viewed as the figure who single-handedly rescued the party from near political extinction, pumping it up with energy, dollars and enthusiasm in a presidential election year.

“Arnold is, without a doubt, the single greatest thing that has ever happened to us,” state GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim said.

But as Republicans meet this weekend to plot strategy for the months ahead, the question of whether Schwarzenegger is a political novelty or a figure who can transform the party into a long-term competitive force in the nation’s largest state is far from clear.

“There’s nothing like him, there will be nothing like him, and it has changed the brand,” Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said. “What the long-lasting effect will be is too soon to tell, and he hasn’t contemplated all that.”

A year ago, Republicans were still recovering from a disastrous 2002 election cycle in which Democrats won every statewide office in California while Republicans scored big gains in almost every other state. GOP activists were also engaged in a fractious battle over whether to elect the moderate Sundheim as party chairman, or a conservative who had once written an essay suggesting the country would have been better off if the South had won the Civil War.

“People were relatively disgusted with the Republican party,” Sundheim recalled.

One year and one recall election later, the change in the GOP’s fortunes has been substantial. The party raised $18 million in 2003, compared with $6 million in the entire 2000 presidential cycle, and registered some 250,000 new voters, of whom 15 percent were Democrats switching parties.

Nevertheless, President Bush faces a tough fight to win California’s 55 electoral votes, even though Schwarzenegger has been named honorary state chairman of the president’s re-election campaign. Bush lost the state in 2000 by 11 points, or 1.3 million votes.

Also, the GOP could not find a heavyweight challenger for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer this year. The best-known candidate, former Secretary of State Bill Jones, managed to win just 17 percent of the vote in the 2002 GOP gubernatorial primary, the last time he ran statewide.

Democratic strategist Garry South said the Republican Senate field indicates a fundamental weakness in the party that Schwarzenegger’s election has not changed.

“The headline race in California, other than the presidential race, is the contest for U.S. Senate, and Boxer has been at the top of the vulnerable list. The best Republicans can give you is this?” South said. “Other than Arnold, they have nothing going on here.”

But Republicans say they are confident that Schwarzenegger’s star power will help them win seats in the heavily Democratic state Assembly.

“We have a weather report that a pretty big wave is coming in for November, and even if the wave peters out, we will pick up seats in the Assembly,” Sundheim said. “We’re working out, we’re waxing our boards, and we’re ready to go.”

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