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Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at the California GOP convention at the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame, Calif., Saturday afternoon March 15, 2014. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

BURLINGAME -- The two main GOP candidates for governor, Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari, aggressively wooed delegates at their party's state convention Saturday, despite party leaders' tactical decision to focus on down-ticket races instead this year.

Though still a focus of delegates' attention, the top-of-the-ticket candidates for the first time in recent memory were receiving a distinct "you're on your own" vibe from the party's highest echelons. And their reactions matched their personas.

"I have never heard such nonsense," Donnelly said Saturday. "It is a bunch of gibberish.

Gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari rallies his supporters in front of his own image on a video projection at the California GOP convention in
Gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari rallies his supporters in front of his own image on a video projection at the California GOP convention in Burlingame, Calif., Saturday afternoon March 15, 2014. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

"We had to negotiate with our own party in order to speak here," added Donnelly, a firebrand conservative assemblyman from San Bernardino County. "They're terrified that somebody who takes strong positions ... might represent them. But that's how you win."

The more moderate Kashkari, an asset manager from Orange County and former U.S. Treasury Department official, said he agrees "the lower races are very important" and hopes his campaign's tide will lift GOP boats further down the ticket.

Beating Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in November will be "absolutely hard," he added, "but we have so many examples nationally of very strong incumbents losing" -- though the examples he cited were from 1994, when Republicans unseated New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Texas Gov. Ann Richards.

Yet some at the three-day convention see Kashkari, a 40-year-old Indo-American, as a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only) who is soft on gun rights because he supports gun background checks, oversaw the U.S. government bailout of Wall Street at the beginning of the Great Recession -- and even voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Other Republicans see Donnelly as an extremist former Minuteman anti-immigration activist who couldn't possibly win a general election against a popular incumbent.

State GOP Chairman Jim Brulte and Vice Chair Harmeet Dhillon said Friday that statewide races won't be the state party's focus this year; instead, they'll look for congressional, legislative and victories at the local level.

Brown's enormous campaign war chest and relatively high poll numbers make him look unassailable at this point. And while he's still scorned by many at the convention, some say privately that Brown at least put the brakes on what could have turned into runaway spending after Democrats captured overwhelming majorities in the Assembly and Senate.

Two lesser-known Republicans are also running for governor: Andrew Blount, an entrepreneur and mayor of Laguna Hills, and Glenn Champ, a Fresno County businessman and "Christian soldier." Each of the four candidates will deliver a brief speech Sunday, but they were added to the agenda only this past week, sparking speculation that Brulte had hoped to avoid airing an ideological divide.

Perhaps a divide was unavoidable, however, as many at the convention clearly were falling into the orbits of either Donnelly or Kashkari.

Donnelly on Saturday morning hugged the ladies at the Conservative Republicans of California table, posed for photos with visitors to his own table and handed out stickers.

Todd Blair, 51, of Torrance, wore a Donnelly sticker when he shook his hand.

"Some guys with Kashkari T-shirts were asking about it," Blair told Donnelly, "and I told them I plan to vote Republican this year."

Donnelly cracked up.

Merced County GOP Chairman Collin Kroeker, 49, said Donnelly signed his hat at a recent county event, so Kroeker's 11-year-old daughter sent an autographed photo of herself for him to give to Donnelly. "I love it," Donnelly exclaimed.

"We're backing him 100 percent," Kroeker said of Donnelly. "He speaks to all of us -- at least, everybody on my committee."

Donnelly, 47, later told reporters he sees "a real hunger for something different, a hunger for a grass-roots campaign that knows how to connect with people effectively."

He cast himself as an everyman -- "I'm not wealthy, there's nothing special about me" -- but also as an experienced candidate. "When you're at a convention, people want to know, 'Can you win?' Well, I've stood for election and won two times."

He said his campaign is connecting with evangelicals, tea partyers, libertarians, nonpartisans and disaffected Democrats. "I believe tyranny is the enemy" -- not Democrats, he said. "Democrats are Americans."

Kashkari later Saturday told reporters he also wants to make the party "a bigger tent" -- or, as he put it earlier to a throng of college-age supporters, "the young party, the party of ideas, the party of hard work." Those supporters were handing out popcorn in bags bearing Kashkari's new baseball-theme slogan: "3 terms, you're out! #benchbrown."

Voters are frustrated that Brown shows "no sense of urgency" on improving California's economy, Kashkari said. "This is a jobs crisis ... but he says it's a 'California comeback.'"

Santa Barbara County delegates Barbara and Roger Kohn approached Kashkari, who assured them he had visited their county, then quickly handed them off to a staffer so he could talk to waiting reporters.

"I know he's busy," said a clearly unhappy Barbara Kohn, 62. "But I'm on the Santa Barbara Republican Central Committee, and he's never been there."

But delegate Larry Molton, 59, of Castro Valley, said he's a "big fan" of Kashkari.

"He represents what an alternative to the Democratic Party in California has to be, someone who appeals across all demographics," Molton said. "Right now, California is a one-party state, and that's not healthy."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.