Two larger-than-life politicians, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan, charged into the California governor's office with the help of young voters, many of whom were drawn to the Republican Party by a message of sunny optimism.
But what those two very different Republican politicians did to attract millions of young adults looks to be a feat the Grand Old Party may not repeat anytime soon - either in California or on the national level in the 2008 presidential election.
A Democracy Corps poll from the Washington firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner suggests voters ages 18 to 29 have undergone a striking political evolution in recent years.
Young Americans have become so profoundly alienated from Republican ideals on issues including the war in Iraq, global warming, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration that their defections suggest a political setback that could haunt Republicans "for many generations to come," the poll said.
The startling collapse of GOP support among young voters is reflected in the poll's findings that show two-thirds of young voters surveyed believe Democrats do a better job than Republicans of representing their views - even on issues Republicans once owned, such as terrorism and taxes.
And among GOP presidential candidates, only former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani registers with more positive views than negative with young voters, the poll shows.
The anti-GOP shift for this generation - which is expected to reach 50 million voters, or 17 percent of the electorate, in 2008 - represents a marked contrast from their predecessors, the Gen Xers born in the mid-'60s to mid-'70s whose demographic represented the strongest Republican voters in the nation, pollster Anna Greenberg said.
Today, "on every single issue, Democrats are doing better with young people - no matter what the issue is," said Greenberg.
Catherine Brinkman, 28, of Foster City, who heads the California Young Republicans, said she hears from many of her Republican friends who say, " 'Look at our (presidential) candidates compared to the Democrats: They have Hillary, everyone knows her ... and you have this phenomenal (senator) out of Chicago, who is African American and energized.' "
The perception is that "we're still selling the same old white guys," Brinkman said.
The problem for the Republicans with young voters may be especially potent in California, where political veterans say the widening gulf between Schwarzenegger and the increasingly conservative tilt of Republican elected officials threatens a party that already has found it difficult to win statewide for the past 15 years.
"I think you have to be concerned when you have some (Republican) people who are saying that global warming is a hoax and that status quo for health care is acceptable," said Adam Mendelsohn, the communications director for Schwarzenegger.
"These are all positions that don't reflect where Republicans are in this state - and this is especially true when you start looking at young Republicans."
Schwarzenegger, by supporting issues "once owned by the Democrats," such as the environment and education, has lured many young voters to support him and "closely identify themselves as Schwarzenegger Republicans," Mendelsohn said.
But Democratic strategist Garry South said Schwarzenegger's success at the polls won't translate to other Republican candidates.
South pointed toward the recent state budget battle, which pitted Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislators against conservative GOP senators who delayed the $145 billion budget for almost two months to pressure for more cuts and protections for businesses against environmental lawsuits.
The demands of the state senators, South said, were so far to the right of the average voter that "the Republican brand in California now is so tainted and toxic that the only way you're going to win is to buy yourself out of the brand."
That means wealthy GOP candidates such as Schwarzenegger or Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner must dip into their considerable bank accounts to "spend millions and tell voters why you're different. But if not - you will go down like lambs to the slaughter," South said.
In California, the GOP's relatively weak prospects in the presidential election and in future statewide elections can be traced to what has been an increasingly tone deaf approach to a new set of priorities among voters, particularly the young, said Cal State Sacramento political communications Professor Barbara O'Connor.
"The fact that the governor's rating is around 60 percent is indicative of the legacy solutions that he proposes are resonating with the voters," including health care, infrastructure issues and education, O'Connor said.
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"When a bridge is collapsing, the levees are in danger of flooding, or they're sitting in gridlock ... people don't care about, 'I saved you this much money,' " O'Connor said of the traditional Republican effort to cut the budget. "They care when their life is better. Parties should try to fix things - or ignore them at their peril."
Greenberg said the poll showed the war in Iraq and President Bush are unpopular with younger voters, which contributed to the decline in support for the GOP.
Younger voters, who grew up in the Clinton years, are also increasingly at odds with the GOP and its leaders on social issues.
"This is a more diverse generation, racially and ethnically, and it's more progressive on social issues like gay marriage," Greenberg said. "They see the Republican Party as profoundly different on tolerance and identity."
The poll also suggests the GOP is not addressing young voters' deep concerns about their future economic security. "Young people's economic struggles, more than any other issue, defines their political agenda," she said.
The study released last month of 1,017 voters ages 18-29 was conducted May 29-June 19. Voters were reached by a random telephone survey, through the Internet and on cell phones. The poll did not disclose a margin of error.
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner is a polling firm generally affiliated with Democrats. Its founder, Stan Greenberg, was a pollster for Democratic President Bill Clinton.
The GOP's problems for the future that show up in the poll are evident among young conservatives such as Wes Hanson, 17, a Livermore High School senior who describes himself as church-going, strongly anti-abortion and deeply concerned with the impacts of illegal immigration. But Hanson, who will cast his first presidential ballot in the 2008 election, is not sure he will register Republican - and is just as likely to be a "decline-to-state" or independent voter.
"I feel that Republicans tend to look out more for the best interests of the majority," especially on fiscal issues and moral responsibility, Hanson says.
But, like many in his age group, he has a libertarian streak and believes party lawmakers are wrong to try to legislate issues such as same-sex marriage.
"I don't think it's any of the government's business," said Hanson, who says he is still not inspired by any of the GOP's 2008 presidential candidates.
Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, acknowledged the challenges that the Iraq war and other issues have created for the party, but said they are not insurmountable.
"Obviously, this is a tough political environment for our party, but we believe our brand of individual responsibility, lower taxes and national security is one that resonates with youth voters," he said
Brinkman, with the Young Republicans, said GOP leaders can start making repairs by going back to the Reagan playbook - and "back to our core values." That means talking about how lower taxes, less government and fiscal responsibility can deliver opportunity for students and young professionals - and hope.
With headlines about a mortgage crisis, outsourcing, health care costs and immigration, she said young voters want their political parties to stop fighting and offer solutions.
"When it comes to the American dream," Brinkman says, "we're thinking, where is it?"
Brinkman backs Giuliani for president and believes he may be the kind of leader who can inspire young people who may be deserting the Republican Party.
The former New York mayor has star power and an energized message - and the under-30 crowd knows him from his performance in New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"He has something that people want to see; they want to be around him," she said.
E-mail Carla Marinucci at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle