WASHINGTON — In California and across the nation, it's open season on RINOs.
For many conservatives, there's nothing worse than being a RINO — that's a Republican In Name Only, a moderate, a politician who's allegedly squishy on core principles and a little too independent.
When California Republicans go to the polls to choose a Senate candidate next month, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore says he'll be the only non-RINO on the ballot.
He says both of his challengers, former Rep. Tom Campbell and former businesswoman Carly Fiorina, are true RINOS: Campbell because he backs gun control, abortion rights and gay marriage, among other things; and Fiorina because she cozied up to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign and then spoke in favor of a plan to curb global warming.
Conservatives say there are far too many RINOs in the national Republican Party, epitomized by moderates such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani.
For DeVore, who's running last in most polls, the long-shot strategy is clear: Campbell and Fiorina split the RINO vote and he emerges as the winner and gets the right to face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in November.
If the moderates are divided, "then I'm in," said DeVore. "It is good news for me. What has to happen first is that people who are currently supporting Campbell because they erroneously think he's conservative need to find out the truth, at which point they'll come to me."
For Campbell and Fiorina, the strategy is equally clear, particularly in a race that's likely to be decided mainly by conservative voters: Establish your anti-RINO credentials.
"Carly Fiorina is the only conservative in this race who can beat Barbara Boxer," said Amy Thoma, Fiorina's spokeswoman. "Chuck DeVore has been stuck in the polls for two years and has been unable to get any traction with voters or with fundraising."
The conservative disenchantment with Republican moderates is at play across the country, most recently in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist is running as an independent in the state's Senate race.
It reflects a steady decline in the number of moderate or liberal Republicans in the nation. Just one year ago, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter left the GOP to become a Democrat when it became clear he would face a fierce Republican primary challenge.
"The Republican Party has clearly gotten more conservative, there's just no question about that," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst with the University of Virginia. "There are fewer moderates in high public office than at any time in modern history."
DeVore said the Republican Party has been hurt by its members' willingness to compromise with Democrats.
"The reason why we got Barack Obama and the reason we're in this terrible mess that we're in with this huge debt is that pragmatic Republicans made deals with the left over how quickly to grow big government," DeVore said "And as I point out on the campaign trail, that argument is simply over whether we're driving down the road to socialism at a hundred miles an hour or whether we have a reasonable compromise with the progressive left and we only drive at 50 miles an hour, which is perhaps less reckless. The bottom line is the destination is the same."
If these are tough days for moderate Republicans, DeVore said, "Voters largely understand that those are the individuals that bequeathed us this gigantic debt that's now been compounded by the president."
With Campbell leading in the polls, both DeVore and Fiorina have been aiming much of their fire at the frontrunner.
Fiorina's campaign even came up with a twist to the RINO tag, calling Campbell a FCINO — a Fiscal Conservative In Name Only.
"Tom Campbell is a liberal on both social and fiscal issues, which gives Republican primary voters little reason to support him and gives all voters in the general election a choice between Boxer and Boxer Lite, and history shows that given that choice they'll go for the real thing," Thoma said.
And DeVore called Campbell "a proud and open moderate, akin to the Rockefeller wing of the party."
Campbell declined to comment, with an aide explaining that he didn't want to discuss any internal party differences.
"He is trying to unite the party on fiscal issues and has nothing negative to say about those who have different beliefs on social issues," said James Fisfis, Campbell's spokesman.
If a moderate Republican can win anywhere in the nation, Sabato said, chances are better in California, a strongly Democratic state that nonetheless elected Schwarzenegger twice.
"Even many of the conservative Republicans in California have come to terms with reality, and the reality is that if they nominate a very conservative Republican their chances of winning are nil in a general election," Sabato said.
And noting that Boxer has normally defeated conservative candidates, Sabato said it would be a mistake for Republicans to endorse another one.
"If they do," he said, "you can just go ahead and put a check mark next to Barbara Boxer, no matter what her current ratings in the polls are."