Bereft of viable candidates and challenged by the state's transformed ethnic composition, the forlorn California Republican Party has been revitalized by a new leader emerging here, but one with a Texas accent: George W. Bush.

It is not merely that the governor of Texas has preempted support from nearly all the state's Republican leaders in advance of the new, early primary date (March 7). For GOP practitioners, Bush is an ersatz Californian whose appeal -- especially to Hispanics -- counts on one of two factors that could retrieve the state's Republican Party from the slough of despond.

The other factor is Al Gore. It is hard to exaggerate the dismay, bordering on panic, among Democrats over the vice president's prospective nomination. In private, they view Gore as a poor fit for California -- as uncomfortable in this state as Bill Clinton is comfortable.

The turnaround here shows how politics today depends on the top of the ticket. Nine months ago, on Election Night 1998, the California Republican mood was bleak. Not only had 16 straight years of GOP governors ended with a Democratic landslide but the Republicans looked crippled well into the 21st century, as well. The burgeoning Hispanic population was alienated by the GOP's hard line on immigration (ironically pursued by Gov. Pete Wilson, the state's most liberal Republican governor since Earl Warren).

Except for admitting that their approach to Hispanics was disastrous, for the Republicans nothing much has improved internally. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who won in 1994 with 47 percent, is given a free pass for reelection next year. Nobody is on the horizon to challenge Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2002. The party is torn on abortion, with its money base aggressively pro-choice and its grass-roots activists firmly enough pro-life to elect pro-life John McGraw as state Republican chairman this year. As the nation's most populous state gains two more seats in the 2000 census, Republicans fear how the map of 54 House districts will be redrawn by an all-Democratic state government.

Who can lead the GOP out of the morass? Nobody from California; only George W. Bush. Republicans here, after half a century's internal ideological strife, don't know exactly where Bush stands on many issues and could not care less. What they care about is arithmetic. In 1994, when Wilson was elected with 55 percent of the vote, Republicans won control of the State Assembly. Presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996 and gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren in 1998 each fell to 38 percent, resulting in the cumulative loss of eight Assembly seats. So with Bush five percentage points ahead of Gore in California polls, the GOP envisions a comeback in Sacramento. That's why Bush's June 20 fund-raiser at the Century Plaza Hotel here was jammed, attended by many Democrats -- some as supporters, many as observers. One observer was Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, a Democrat up for reelection. They had never met, but Bush spotted Garcetti's television-familiar face and gave him a "Hello, Gil" salutation.

The clincher for the California GOP is Bush's 49 percent of the Hispanic vote in his Texas reelection last year. Monica Lorano, managing editor of La Opinion (a Spanish-language daily in Los Angeles), told me Bush has Hispanic support here.

At the same time, Democrats express regret that the White House-directed fix is in for Gore. High-level Democrats grumbled to me that the vice president still regards California as a cash cow, as evidenced by the abundance of fund-raisers during his visits here. The major scheduled event of his most recent Los Angeles visit, a gay and lesbian money-raising event, was canceled because of the John F. Kennedy Jr. tragedy.

Democratic challenger Bill Bradley has become a subject of interest if not yet widespread support. So far, his events are being attended by people not usually seen at the party's California functions, but some Democratic regulars also are interested. "People want leadership, want charisma," Los Angeles city councilwoman Laura Chick told me. She wonders whether Bradley might be the one, and that is testimony to the change a Texan has quickly wrought in Golden State politics.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.