The luxury bus pulled up outside the California capitol bears the smiling, olive-toned faces of a nuclear family and a plea to the potential queen makers in the state's fiercest Senate race in a quarter-century.
" Vota tus valores," is scrolled across the coach's exterior in giant letters, imploring California Latinos to cast a ballot for the candidate who best reflects their values.
For Alfonso Aguilar, head of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, that would be Carly Fiorina, the most right-wing Republican Senate contender the Golden State has seen in years.
The involvement of Mr. Aguilar's Washington-based group in the California race is part of a trend that has seen deep-pocketed conservative organizations descend in unprecedented numbers on the state this year. They often appear less concerned with electing Ms. Fiorina than defeating a long-standing liberal nemesis, incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer.
In her 18-year Senate tenure, and during the decade she spent in the House of Representatives before that, Ms. Boxer, 69, has come to represent the quintessential California progressive, depicted by her rivals as an "extreme" environmentalist and anti-war, anti-business liberal elitist.
Freed by a Supreme Court ruling this year to spend without limit on elections, national conservative groups have ramped up expenditures in California with wall-to-wall anti-Boxer television ads. While Mr. Aguilar's group emphasizes Ms. Fiorina's social conservatism, the others aim to capitalize on voter outrage at the growth in government spending.
"Twenty-eight years of Barbara Boxer and America is going broke," is how one such ad, paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, goes. Crossroads GPS, a group formed this year by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, also launched an anti-Boxer ad here this week.
Ms. Fiorna's own ads use a devastating slogan to attack Ms. Boxer: "So wrong. Too long."
A Fiorina victory in such a dependably blue state, and one on which few Republican were placing bets a year ago, would thrust the GOP closer to the 10 seats it needs to gain to take control of the Senate.
It takes a lot more money to influence the outcome of a Senate race in California, with its 38 million residents, than, say, Delaware. The willingness of conservative groups to invest so heavily in the Boxer-Fiorina showdown is emblematic of their confidence they can make a difference.
Mr. Aguilar's organization, an affiliate of American Principles in Action, is spending $1-million in its bid to elect the 56-year-old Ms. Fiorina, who recently battled breast cancer. Not only does the former Hewlett Packard chief executive's opposition to abortion and gay marriage make her more aligned with Latino views, Mr. Aguilar insists, but the Tea Party-courting candidate's support for a guest-worker program should be music to the ears of Hispanic families.
Ms. Boxer helped kill a 2007 immigration reform bill that included a guest-worker program. Under pressure from her union backers, she warned that the legislation would have created "a pool of cheap labour at the expense of the American worker."
Ms. Boxer is outpolling Ms. Fiorina among Hispanics, who now account for more than one-fifth of the state's registered voters, by an average margin of 2-to-1. Though two polls this week showed her losing ground, however, Ms. Fiorina has been even or slightly ahead of her rival among non-Hispanic white voters.
"If we move the Latino vote by 10 per cent, that translates into a margin of victory for Carly Fiorina," explains Mr. Aguilar, a former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the administration of George W. Bush. If that happens, "Latinos will have decided the election."
The Republican Party's perceived hostility toward illegal immigrants and its support for Arizona's tough new law aimed at deporting them makes Mr. Aguilar's scenario seem like wishful thinking.
Yet, Latino disenchantment with the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress for failing to push through an immigration reform bill have given Ms. Fiorina's supporters reason to be optimistic. Despite Ms. Boxer's lead, pollsters believe a large chunk of the Latinos who say they will vote for her will, in fact, stay home on Nov. 2.
That so-called enthusiasm gap is also apparent among the broader electorate in California, just as it is nationwide. Those most angry about government debt and deficits are also the ones most likely to vote.
This explains why veteran California political consultant Sal Russo - whose group Tea Party Express almost single-handedly crowned the winners in more than half a dozen Republican Senate primaries this year - sounds so confident about Ms. Fiorina's prospects.
"I actually think she has a better chance than Meg Whitman," Mr. Russo says of the ex-eBay chief executive and Republican candidate for California governor. "That's because she articulates the feelings people have about the growth of government better than Meg Whitman does."
The primary over, Tea Party Express is now fully behind Ms. Fiorina. It has added stops in California on its final pre-election cross-country bus tour later this month to mobilize its supporters for her.
Political pundits continue to cast doubt on the wisdom of Ms. Fiorina's move to cozy up to Tea Partiers, insisting that what sells politically in Kansas or Kentucky is usually toxic in California.
They obviously haven't met Nina Mourning. She had never been politically active until she watched Congress pass the $814-billion (U.S.) stimulus bill and bail out the banking industry.
"I was so angry I said, 'I'm going to get up out of my chair and do something,' " explains the 63-year-old Sacramento resident, who now heads Ms. Fiorina's volunteer committee in the capital. "I got tired of screaming at my husband and TV set. So, I called and e-mailed every single U.S. senator."
Her story reflects nearly word-for-word one being told at anti-spending rallies across the country. In this Tea Party election year, as the nation goes, perhaps so, too, will California.Report Typo/Error