LONG BEACH, Calif. — Mitt Romney and John McCain need the votes of people such as Charlene Bennett.
Most California Republicans fall into one of two broad categories — die-hard conservatives and moderates — but Bennett, an office manager who lives with her husband and two children in an east Long Beach bungalow, is somewhere in between.
She finds that McCain, the darling of the moderates, "has a strong presence" and shows solid leadership qualities, but conservative favorite Romney reminds her of California Republican icon Ronald Reagan.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and McCain, a veteran Arizona senator, are engaged in a struggle for the Charlene Bennetts of California as they vie in what's likely to be the most closely watched of Tuesday's 21 Republican contests.
Romney, who's pulled back his campaign in some states, needs to win in California. If he gets thrashed around the country and loses the largest primary, whose results will be among the last to come in Tuesday, his campaign probably will be considered all but finished.
Romney appears to have solid support among staunch California conservatives. They're the bloc that arguably triggered a realignment of American politics, the folks who pushed then-political novice Reagan to prominence in the mid-1960s and fueled the Proposition 13 anti-tax movement a decade later.
They tend to view Republican politics as a movement, one devoted to lower taxes, less government, opposition to abortion and a tough, well-funded military.
"They seem to be settling on Romney," said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the well-regarded Field Poll, but they're not crazy about him.
Romney was registered "unenrolled," or unaffiliated with a political party, in the 1980s — and he reminded voters in his 1994 U.S. Senate campaign that "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
Romney voted in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary — so he could vote against Bill Clinton, he's explained — and supported abortion rights when he ran for the Senate and Massachusetts' governorship.
Still, a lot of conservative die-hards are accepting him.
"George W. Bush will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents ever, and Mitt Romney will continue a lot of his policies, like tax cuts and being tough in Iraq," said Kirk Johnson, a Glendora machine-shop inspector.
Mary Blacklock, a Long Beach writer, is staunchly anti-abortion and appreciates Romney's stance, despite his contrary view years ago.
So do others. "People do change, and I trust him. People can grow and evolve," said Edie Ohorodnyk, a Long Beach college student.
Some conservatives, however, are more repelled by McCain than they are attracted to Romney. The Arizona senator voted against President Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, saying they were too tilted to the wealthy and would balloon the federal budget deficit, and he's encountered fierce opposition to his bid to overhaul immigration law.
Immigration is a huge issue for a lot of California Republican voters — they want something done about the influx from the nearby border, and fast — and McCain has teamed with Democrats and Bush to push a path to citizenship for many of the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented aliens.
"The number one way Romney affects the debate here is with TV, and if he keeps saying John McCain's granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, that's a powerful message," said Jon Fleischman, California's Republican Party vice chairman.
Romney's other big hope is that the economy remains the central issue. His campaign is banking on his extensive business experience, as well as his commitment to broad-based tax reductions, to woo moderates.
"The economy's part of his DNA," said Tony Strickland, Romney's California campaign chairman.
McCain forces counter with the senator's long fight to cut federal spending and his retooled immigration argument stressing secure borders first, said Bill Jones, a former California secretary of state.
McCain sympathizers are betting that many of the die-hards consider Romney too doctrinaire. They're wooing people such as Craig Parrish, a Long Beach contractor, who finds that "there's too much religion in politics, and I don't think the two should be intertwined."
The Romney and McCain camps agree on one thing: "People will be taking a second look at the candidates this week," Strickland said. The history of this year's primaries and caucuses has been that huge chunks of people focus and then make up their mind in the closing days, and California is expected to be no different.
That's why Charlene Bennett is being courted so ardently. Romney visited her house this week, sitting at her kitchen table and talking to the family for 20 minutes.
Afterward, Bennett stood on her front lawn and offered a wan smile. Romney was certainly personable and smart, she said, but she couldn't say what she'd do Tuesday.
"I just need time to think," she said.