Small business owner Kathryn Smith considers herself a strong conservative who opposes abortion and believes government should live within its means.
The two Republicans running for governor, Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman, have spent millions trying to persuade voters like Smith that they share similar conservative principles.
Smith isn't biting.
"I don't necessarily believe either one of them about their conservative credentials," the Roseville resident said. "I personally haven't made up my mind because I consider myself a real conservative and I don't know which way to go."
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Such public skepticism hasn't stopped the two candidates from making an all-out sprint to the right, each claiming to be the true conservative in the race while criticizing the opponent as the closet liberal.
Political observers say Whitman's and Poizner's decidedly moderate backgrounds help explain their rush to seize the conservative flag.
"With both Poizner and Whitman, their conservative garments still have their tags on them," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"You've got Poizner, who not that long ago called himself a Schwarzenegger Republican and is now trying to morph his opponent into Schwarzenegger," he said. "And Meg Whitman is trying to come across as the California version of Margaret Thatcher."
That mixed message may explain why nearly a third of the state's Republicans remain undecided about the governor's race, despite the more than $100 million the candidates have spent on their campaigns.
Poizner and Whitman are also courting a more conservative Republican base this year, one that includes tea party activists and others seeking to vent their frustrations with elected leaders, said Corey Cook, an assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
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