By Sharon Bernstein
BURLINGAME, California (Reuters) - California Republicans wrapped up their annual state convention on Sunday with a roar of approval for a charismatic Tea Party-backed candidate seeking to unseat popular Democratic Governor Jerry Brown as he vies for an unprecedented fourth term.
Tim Donnelly, a Southern California state assemblyman who made his name as a leader for the anti-illegal immigration Minutemen Project, brought the crowd of several hundred party activists to its feet in a speech that slammed Brown, warned of government tyranny and criticized recent efforts in the state to allow transgender children to use school restrooms in accordance with their gender identities.
"I want my state back," said Donnelly, a businessman who represents the conservative desert area east of Los Angeles. He blamed government regulation for driving customers away from a plastics business that he founded. "I want my freedom back."
About 1,000 delegates and guests attended the weekend convention in Burlingame, about 15 miles south of San Francisco. Speakers included former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus who urged members to strike a more inclusive tone as the party struggles to rebuild in a state where it once dominated.
"We have a responsibility to those who do not yet have the liberties and the rights that we enjoy," Rice told the group on Saturday as part of a speech urging the party to become more inclusive on issues like immigration. "We cannot abandon them ... We were once them."
The convention took place after months of strategizing and fundraising led by former Republican state senate leader Jim Brulte. In a state where Democrats control both legislative houses and every statewide elected office, Brulte is charged with helping to revive the party's moribund operation.
Just 29 percent of voters were registered Republicans in California in 2013, down from about 35 percent in 2005, part of a long decline in the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the increasingly diverse and socially liberal state.
Brown, who served as the state's top executive from 1975 to 1983 before winning the spot again in 2010, is seeking a fourth term as governor. By steering Democrats in the legislature sharply toward the center and stubbornly demanding fiscal restraint, his focus on paying down debt while restoring funding in key areas such as education has won him high approval ratings in a state where voters can be fickle.
But it was clear from the differing reactions to Donnelly and a more moderate candidate, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, that this was a conservative crowd.
Kashkari, who is seeking support from business interests in the state and is more moderate than Donnelly on many social issues, has made jobs and education the cornerstone of his campaign. He cited support from college Republicans and said he planned to meet with party activists in their hometowns after the convention ended.
"I'm running for governor because California is failing millions of our families," Kashkari said, referring to low-performing schools and a weak rate of job creation. His speech was met with polite applause, but not with the thunderous reaction that delegates gave to Donnelly.
At the convention and behind the scenes, Republican leaders have been urging candidates to be more inclusive and to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric. In his speech, Donnelly avoided talking about immigration and religion.
Democrats, he told the delegates, were not the enemy - they were potential Republicans.
Donnelly, 47, has an impassioned, populist style of speaking that tends to include a lot of zingers. His Burlingame speech was not without swipes at liberal causes, including environmentalists who want a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas and oil from underground rock deposits.
"We ought to frack our way to prosperity and drill our way to prosperity, rather than sitting on an ocean of oil and importing it from our enemies," he said to wild applause.
On his first day in office, Donnelly said, he would declare a moratorium on all laws that would restrict freedom, businesses or the constitutional rights of Californians.
He also railed against politicians who want to allow boys to use the girls' restroom at school, a jab at a recent state law allowing transgender youth to play sports or use bathrooms in accordance with their gender identities.
Assemblyman Brian Jones, a San Diego-area Republican who has thrown his support behind Donnelly, said that the sometimes provocative candidate has taken to heart pleas from senior party leaders and the business community to make his message more inclusive.
"He's saying the same things, but in a more welcoming manner," Jones said. "He's grown and is paying attention and being responsive to feedback."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Matthew Lewis)