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Demos optimistic heading into state convention
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SACRAMENTO . (AP) — It looks like a good year to be a Democrat in California: The party swept every statewide office in 2010, has continued to widen its voter registration edge over Republicans and has a chance to gain a two-thirds majority in the state Senate this November.

Yet this year also will give voters a chance to have a referendum of sorts on the Democratic approach to state government, as Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratically aligned interest groups seek to ask voters for tax increases to help address the state's ongoing budget shortfall. The success of those campaigns is anything but certain, with polls showing support for taxing the wealthy but no one else.

How Democrats will position themselves for November will be a big part of the state party's annual convention this weekend in San Diego.

One complication is the competition Brown faces as he seeks to qualify a ballot initiative that temporarily would raise incomes taxes on the wealthy and boost the state sales tax by half a cent. Two other groups also are seeking tax increases in November, a dynamic that could confuse or alienate voters and doom all three.

Also this year, a new primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party, will be in widespread use for the first time. That is expected to force candidates of both major parties to spend more money than they typically have in a primary election cycle because they will be forced to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate, not just party die-hards.

Newly drawn political boundaries for state Assembly, Senate and congressional districts also are causing complications for Democrats, who enjoy majorities in both houses of the Legislature and in the states' congressional delegation. Some have to move districts or challenge members of their own party in the June primary.

Overall, though, California's new independent redistricting process has given Democrats hope that they will be able to expand their majority status, at least in the state Senate, where they hope to capture an additional two seats. That would be enough for the two-thirds majority that would allow Democrats to pass tax increases without Republican votes.

This weekend will see plenty of candidates for legislative office vying for party endorsements.

Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said the drawn-out contest for the Republican presidential nomination also is bringing more support for Democrats, as viewers watch the debates and listen to the conservative talking points.

"Clearly, the more people watch the Republican debates the less enthused they can be," he said. "They aren't thoroughly overjoyed with us, but they view Democrats infinitely better than Republicans, based on the presidential debate and how just out of whack the Republican House of Representatives has been."

Republicans reclaimed the House in 2010, ending the speakership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to attend the convention.

California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said he believes voters are seeing just the opposite as the GOP presidential primary season unfolds. He said voters are seeing the Republican candidates define their plans for economic recovery and contrasting their ideas with the spending under the administration of President Barack Obama.

He also sees an opportunity for Republicans in the California elections this November. With the state still struggling to emerge from the recession, Del Beccaro said voters will see Democrats pushing tax increases while Republicans promote restrained government spending and push a ballot initiative for a state spending cap.

"I'd like to see some favorable results from their control," he said of the Democratic majorities in the Legislature and control of all constitutional offices. "All I see out here now is that the state is running out of money, and they have only their policies to blame."

Democrats have continued to boost their registration advantage in California, although more and more voters are aligning themselves with no party at all.

The latest figures from the secretary of state's office show 43.6 percent of California voters identify themselves as Democrats, up from 42.7 percent four years ago. Republican registration has slipped to 30.4 percent, down from 33.5 percent in 2008. The number of unaffiliated voters has hit an all-time high of 21.2 percent, or 3.6 million of the more than 17 million registered voters.

Democrats are working to register even more voters, focusing on typically Republican-leaning areas of the state such as the Central Valley and Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Burton said.

"When we get the word from the leadership (in the state Legislature and Congress), we'll then focus our efforts on the areas they feel we have the best chance" to capture additional seats, he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is up for re-election this year, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Brown are among the convention speakers scheduled Saturday.

The governor is likely to try to urge Democrats to coalesce behind his proposed November ballot initiative, which temporarily would raise the state sales tax and income tax rates for those making $250,000 a year or more. The governor has warned that if several different tax measures appear on the ballot, voters could become confused and reject them all.

The competing measures already have divided Democratic interest groups.

While Brown's initiative is supported by the California Teachers Association, the smaller California Federation of Teachers is seeking its own initiative to impose a higher tax on millionaires and has the backing of the influential California Nurses Association. Those groups note that polls have consistently shown California voters supporting higher taxes on the wealthy but are against broad-based tax increases, such as Brown's plan to raise the sales tax.

Meanwhile, the California Parent Teacher Association is supporting a separate initiative proposal by Molly Munger, a wealthy attorney who is the daughter of billionaire Berkshire Hathaway partner Charles Munger. It would boost income taxes on a sliding scale and raise $10 billion annually for 12 years.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is scheduled to speak Saturday, said he is among those backing the governor's approach.

"I respect the others and their desire to step into the debate, but we're better served by having one measure on the ballot," Newsom said this week in Sacramento. "It doesn't mean that we can't succeed with more than one measure. I'm convinced we can. But I think it would be easier for everyone to have one single measure."