GOP chairman's work cut out for him

Schroeder upbeat despite critics and cash crunch

His party spent last year hemorrhaging financially, with total contributions off by more than $1 million compared with fund raising in the previous non-election year.

His controversial months-long bid to get Congress to overturn the 1996 election defeat of his client, former Republican Rep. Bob Dornan of Orange County, ended in failure last week. And as his fellow Republicans gather today for their first statewide convention this election year, state Republican Party Chairman Mike Schroeder is still fending off criticism over his unsuccessful attempt at the last party gathering to derail an endorsement of the June primary anti-bilingual education ballot measure.

Despite those setbacks, Schroeder says he has an upbeat message for the estimated 1,200 delegates expected to attend the party’s three-day convention in Burlingame: The party is well-positioned to win when it really counts — at the ballot box come November.

“The governor’s race looks great for us. We have a very popular nominee who’s cleared the field while the Democrats are looking at a bloodbath,” Schroeder said, referring to state Attorney General Dan Lungren.

Lungren, in fact, is expected to get the party’s endorsement this weekend, capping his campaign kickoff tour.

Schroeder, however, isn’t predicting any bloodbath in his party’s contested primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer. He said a trio of Republicans vying for that seat — state Treasurer Matt Fong, San Diego businessman Darrell Issa and Rep. Frank Riggs of Sonoma County — “do not intend” to run negative advertising campaigns against each other.

If there’s any blood drawn during the convention debate among the GOP Senate candidates, relatively few may take notice: the debate is set for 8:30 tonight. Today’s main attraction, instead, is the “African American Republican Summit,” the latest effort by Schroeder in his yearlong, hose for the state Supreme Court.

“By taking a position on judges and judicial candidates, our party can help elect to the bench those who . . . embrace the GOP principles of individual responsibility, private property rights and judicial restraint,” Richard Lambros, the party’s executive director, wrote last month in a memo to party county chairmen.

In the months ahead, some party watchers said, a true test of Schroeder’s leadership will be how well he shores up the group’s financial picture. The state party’s fund-raising was severely hampered by campaign contribution limits imposed under Proposition 208, passed in 1996. A federal judge ruled last month that the limits were unconstitutional.

According to campaign disclosure statements, the party took in $623,600 in total contributions in 1997, which was $1.47 million less than what it raised in 1995, the previous non-election year.

“Now that’s over (Proposition 208), we’re digging ourselves out of debt,” Schroeder said, adding that fund raising is now “going a lot better.”

Steve Merksamer, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to Gov. George Deukmejian, said Proposition 208 “almost shut down” both major parties. “The (Republican) party has got a big job ahead of it, and I think Mike has a big job ahead of him,” Merksamer said. “But I think he’s up to it.”

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