In the weeks since Carly Fiorina announced her run for a California Senate seat, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive has been working to convince conservatives that she is one of them.
She signed a pledge opposing any increase in income taxes, blasted the spending in the proposed health care overhaul, took up the cause of farmers who want relief from government-imposed water restrictions, and has sent a steady volley of shots aimed at the record of Democrat Barbara Boxer, who is up for re-election next year.
But in doing so, Fiorina is walking a political tightrope that has proved the downfall of many Republicans before her.
The dilemma is how Republican candidates can make it through a GOP primary dominated by conservative firebrands without alienating the centrist voters they'll need to win a general election. In Fiorina's case, the problem is especially challenging: As someone who has never before held public office, she must convince Republican primary voters that she can be trusted to uphold their principles without turning off moderate Democrats and independents.
Fiorina's Republican opponent, state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine, is trying to cast the GOP primary as a contest between a tried-and-true free-market conservative and a wild card moderate with no political track record. He maintains that staying true to his beliefs also will play well in the general election.
"We didn't lose elections because we were being too conservative and being true to our principles," DeVore said.
Jon Fleischman, an influential Republican blogger in California, said some DeVore supporters will try to portray Fiorina as the California version of Dede Scozzafava, the moderate Republican who was forced out of a congressional race in upstate New York this month.
Despite their bluster, conservatives like those who pounced on Scozzafava's support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage haven't fared well in statewide elections in California.
Republican Bill Simon couldn't stop Gov. Gray Davis' re-election in 2002. Two years later, Boxer defeated former Secretary of State Bill Jones, who couldn't even raise enough money to run a television campaign. Rep. Tom McClintock, a former state lawmaker who is a favorite of conservatives, has been defeated in several tries for statewide office.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is regarded as a moderate, and his tenure actually may be working against Fiorina, several Republican activists said.
They have felt betrayed by the governor, saying he has compromised conservative principles by embracing tax increases, universal health coverage and legislation to fight global warming that they say imposes regulatory burdens on businesses.
Fleischman said he came away from an interview with Fiorina thinking they agreed on many issues, such as opposition to abortion and the growing role of the federal government. Fiorina opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered. Her campaign says Fiorina believes marriage is between a man and a woman but also supports domestic partnerships.
"I don't think there's any way Carly Fiorina out-conservatives Chuck DeVore, but I don't think that's her goal," Fleischman said. "The real question is: Is Carly Fiorina a conservative? And based on my sit-downs with her so far, I think she probably is."
The social issues that rose to prominence in the New York race are not likely to play a large role in the California Republican primary. Instead, DeVore said he will challenge Fiorina on economic policies, specifically her views on issues he opposed outright: the Wall Street bailout, the Obama administration's stimulus spending, taxing sales made on the Internet, and cap-and-trade programs intended to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said the former CEO is a lifelong fiscal conservative who opposes tax increases and increased government regulation. She will promote a message focusing on creating jobs, expanding the economy and controlling federal spending.
"Carly isn't one for labels," Soderlund said. "She is asking voters to judge her on her record and on her priorities for this country and this state."
Steve Frank, a longtime GOP activist, said Republicans have a certain comfort level with DeVore because he has a voting record Fiorina lacks. He and other party activists said they will not support Fiorina without thoroughly examining her views, especially on spending issues.
"She has no background in politics, no experience in public policy, no transferable believability on the issues," Frank said. "She may be a conservative, but how do we know? And after the experience of Arnold Schwarzenegger, we've got to be very careful."
Fiorina's strategy also will including trying to convince Republicans she has a key advantage over DeVore _ the perceived ability to beat Boxer in the general election. Her Nov. 4 campaign announcement was notable in part because she spent so much time attacking Boxer.
Because of his rigidly conservative views, DeVore may have a difficult time attracting independent voters. They account for 20 percent of the electorate in a state where Democrats enjoy a wide voter registration edge over Republicans.
To win them over, Fiorina must find a way to navigate the Republican primary without appearing too conservative for a state that gave Democrat Barack Obama a 24-point victory over Republican John McCain in last year's presidential race.
Patrick Dorinson, a former spokesman for the state GOP, said Fiorina's focus on a general election matchup against Boxer is a valid strategy, even before the June primary.
"I'm hoping that Republicans are more concerned about winning than purity," he said. "We always seem to run people who are just not going to fit with the mainstream of California."
Associated Press Writer Tom Verdin in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.