That question hangs in the air this spring as the five major GOP candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate practically trip over each other while running to the right.
They do this because they know their party's primaries are dominated by conservatives who rarely nominate a moderate for anything. Many analysts believe, for instance, that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — elected in the 2003 recall — never could have won a GOP primary.
This situation will hold unless the overall California electorate approves an open primary like what's proposed this June as Proposition 14.
Only when all voters can vote in all primaries will candidates need to appeal to the broad middle ground, unrepresented in California for decades as the right wing rules the GOP and a far left/organized labor coalition controls the Democratic Party.
For now, anyone who wants to get anywhere in the GOP must cater to the right, even if it means running counter to what all polls show the vast majority of Californians favor. This conservative dominance is one reason Republican voter registration fell to an all-time low of about 31 percent this spring.
"If we ever go below 30 percent," Meg Whitman, the current poll leader in the race to become the Republican nominee for governor, warned in one recent speech, "it will be almost impossible for us to win elections."
Republicans now can win statewide even though they are unlikely soon to win a legislative majority because voting runs much heavier in districts they dominate than in many with strong Democratic majorities.
But if they weave too far right while vying for party nominations, they risk losing the moderates and liberals who together comprise the vast majority of the electorate. And if they recant their primary stances, they become flip-floppers.
The most obvious Republican move right for the primary is by current state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, Whitman's rival for the nomination for governor.
Poizner has campaigned around the state for two years, often taking different stances from what he espoused while running for the Assembly in 2004. Whitman's campaign loves noting his switcheroos. She, of course, has no prior record — not even much of a record of having voted.
Whitman notes that Poizner opposed ex-President George W. Bush's 2004 tax cuts and donated $200,000 to the year-2000 campaign for Proposition 39, which lowered the majority needed for school construction bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent. Whitman estimates that added $40 billion to the state's tax load.
Meanwhile, she makes improved education a major promise, but doesn't say where schools would be without Proposition 39 money.
Whitman also charges Poizner backed an immigrant guest worker program in 2004 and praised Bush's efforts to pass an immigrant amnesty program, but now wants illegal immigration totally cut off and illegals deprived of all public services. Poizner calls Whitman soft on illegal immigration. And so on.
Whitman opposes immigration amnesty and vows to cut 40,000 state workers. She promises to become "Gov. No," pledging to veto any bill not about job creation, government spending cuts or improved education. No one knows whether her plan would produce a larger spending cut than Poizner's proposed 10 percent, across-the-board reductions in taxes and spending, especially since school teachers are public employees. In both cases, this is campaign blather; neither candidate's position will become reality while Democrats dominate the Legislature.
One thing for sure: both candidates and the three Republicans vying to take on three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer this fall made certain few Latinos will vote for them this fall, since every poll shows immigration reform with some kind of amnesty is a high priority among that group — the fastest growing voter bloc in California and the nation. Polls also show most other voters have a live-and-let-live attitude toward illegals.
The candidates also seemed to want to alienate pro-choice women, with Whitman blasting Poizner for favoring government-funded abortions a few years ago, but reversing himself now. And, led by Whitman and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, GOP candidates grow more skeptical of global warming every day in a state where environmental measures usually pass.
The real question is how long these stances will be remembered outside the Republican Party.
For if this year's crop of candidates is anything like many predecessors, they will become more moderate after the primary, when they must appeal to an electorate not dominated by conservatives and "tea party" activists.
Back when Jerry Brown was governor, top aide Tom Quinn remarked that "We can say almost anything we want before Jan. 1 of an election year; no one will remember." It's now well beyond Jan. 1 and Brown will soon start trying to make sure the great mass of voters — non-Republicans — remembers what these people are saying now.
These ads both candidates are running are BRUTAL! Holy crap. Here is Steve Poizner's site with his ads. Play one and they'll automatically loop. You can find Meg Whitman's ads here. This has certainly been like a soap opera. Just watch the ads and see.