ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. -- California's delegation to the Republican National Convention arrived here over the weekend, settling into a beach resort one city and 30 miles from the convention hall.
If a hotel assignment is a measure of a delegation's national influence, the encampment at the TradeWinds Island Grand shared by California and the Northern Mariana Islands is a sign of how deeply blue California has become.
It has been more than 20 years since the state supported a Republican for president, and not even the most enthusiastic Republican activists think Mitt Romney can win California's 55 electoral votes this year.
On a humid beach Saturday night, delegates sipped mojitos and beer, with one eye on the looming storm and another on the state of the party.
For travelers outside California, the GOP's weakness in the state is a source of some ribbing and much sympathy.
"Yeah, I mean, most of them look at California, and say, 'Oh, my gosh, too bad,' " David Lucchetti, a Republican donor and president of Pacific Coast Building Products, said before leaving for Tampa. "It needs a lot of work.
"You know, I think that realistically when we look at the number of Republicans versus the number of Democrats, it's going to be a long, slow journey."
To the extent that California Republicans in a presidential election year command respect, it is for their prodigious fundraising. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie traveled to Lucchetti's Wilton home this month to raise money for Romney, and the candidate himself, like President Barack Obama, has raised millions of dollars at fundraisers in California.
The state is also considered potentially significant because of its delegation's size the 172-member delegation is the nation's largest and full-throated commitment to Romney. If Ron Paul supporters interrupt the convention, organizers are counting on a loud response from Californians inside the convention hall.
But many Republicans yearn for more than noise and money from the Golden State.
"They want the land of Reagan back," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the House majority whip.
Republicans once dominated gubernatorial elections in California, and Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon all carried California in their presidential bids. But not since George H.W. Bush in 1988 has a Republican presidential candidate succeeded in the state.
Four years ago, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned his party it was "dying at the box office," Barack Obama beat John McCain by 24 percentage points. This year, California is among the states in which Romney, whom the delegates are here to nominate, will not seriously compete.
The cause of the party's distress is plain: In the last 20 years, Republicans grew older and more conservative, even as the proportion of registered voters who are Latino grew to 22 percent from 10 percent, according to a Field Poll analysis released last year. In the last presidential election, those Latino voters provided Obama an advantage of more than nine percentage points as a share of the state's total vote, the poll found.
As the delegation prepared to board buses for a welcome party Sunday night at Tropicana Field, its composition suggested a party that isn't representative of the state's growing diversity. Of California's 172 delegates, 79 percent are white, according to a delegation official. Seven percent are Latino.
"I think their head is in the sand," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said. "For the last 10 years they needed to put in place an effective outreach to the ethnic populations, and they haven't done that."
Republican voter registration has plummeted to just more than 30 percent.
Republican officials talk of a turnaround, and their hope is not unprecedented. The Democratic Party was flailing in California when Republican Gov. Earl Warren trounced his Democratic challenger, James Roosevelt, in his 1950 re-election bid.
"The (Democratic) state party really was in a bad way, so you would think the Democrats were headed for a very long time in the wilderness," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson.
The Democratic Party began to rehabilitate itself in 1958, with a progressive message and an appealing gubernatorial candidate, Pat Brown.
"The Democratic Party was once in a ditch and it turned around because it found the right candidate, but it also found the right message for the times," Whalen said. "You look at the Republican Party right now, and the challenge in California, at least, is both finding the right candidate and finding the right message for the right times."
Republican leaders said they believe the lagging economy and billions of dollars in unpopular spending reductions enacted by the Legislature may provide an opportunity. McCarthy points to voters' approval of pension reductions in San Jose and San Diego as evidence of the public's appetite for conservative policies. The Republican Party in California, he said, is focusing "on the economic message of the day."
Following years of relative disorganization, Republicans have opened a dozen headquarters in districts throughout the state, McCarthy said, courting voters more aggressively than in previous years.
"Sometimes the weakness helps," he said, "to make you go do things that you should have done anyway."
Mark Pruner, president of the California Republican County Chairmen's Association, said party officials are now "connecting better, sharing information, sharing processes."
He called the party's shortcomings "a public relations issue it's fixable."
Finding a suitable candidate for statewide office may prove difficult, however. There remains no obvious bench of high-profile Republicans from which to draw. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, once considered a likely contender, abandoned the party in his failed campaign this year for San Diego mayor.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate, was defeated in the 2002 gubernatorial primary by a more conservative businessman, Bill Simon, who went on to lose to Democrat Gray Davis in the general election. Riordan remains concerned about the party's ability to field a candidate who can appeal to minorities and independent voters.
"The question is who can get nominated, and it's pretty hard," Riordan said. "If I had not pissed off the right-wing Republicans by being rational, you know, I could have won the primary. But the bottom line is I was very honest in telling people that I think that an immigrant child deserves an education and health care as much as any other human being. If somebody's gay, so be it. It's a question of how competent they are. You know, things like that."
Riordan said, "You need a new leader. You're going to need a Ronald Reagan or somebody like that."
A band played at the TradeWinds on Saturday night, and Mary Young, a guest from Orange County, took off her sandals and moved between the dinner tables on the beach. She wore a button that said, "I'm a red hot Republican," and she talked briefly with Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party.
Young called the location awesome, and Del Beccaro said that for the delegates and their guests, "It's a total getaway." The Californians are not without company. New Jersey, Guam, Nebraska and Alaska were assigned hotels up and down the street.
"There are only three states that probably aren't complaining about their location: Massachusetts, Michigan and Utah," said Mitch Zak, a delegation spokesman.
For California, Zak said, it was more important to be assigned a hotel large enough to house the state's delegates all together.
"This isn't about where we're staying," Zak said. "This is about the delegation being together, and being excited about our nominee, and highlighting all that is great about the Republican Party and if we have to ride on a bus for 45 minutes to get to the hotel, that's OK."