Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 | Mayor Jerry Sanders appears to have survived the political controversy that threatened his endorsement from the Republican Party when conservatives lashed out at his support of same-sex marriage.

Those close to the party said the local Republican kingmakers stuck with Sanders after deliberating behind closed doors Monday night in an attempt to protect the Republican mayor’s reelection efforts from the embarrassing publicity that would accompany a withdrawn endorsement, while at the same time saving face for the local party itself.

“You can’t really put the toothpaste back into the tube,” said hospital administrator Barry Jantz, who is not on the party’s endorsing committee but is an East County party activist.

The decision also came after a crucial debate over the county party’s identity itself. On the prevailing side were party members who view the successful election of Republicans to local offices as the organization’s top priorities. On the other side, social conservatives wanted to resist a candidate who strayed from the party’s national platform on the issue.

“What a blunder the party would make if it tried to fall on its sword on that one issue,” said one Central Committee member who said he supported the mayor but would only speak on the condition of anonymity.

Party activists became discouraged by Sanders last month when the mayor reversed course on the same-sex marriage issue by signing a legal brief in support of the issue that was sent on the city of San Diego’s behalf to the California Supreme Court.

Sanders made national news with his change of heart, but the outrage it caused among local social conservatives fueled speculation that the Republican Party of San Diego County’s Central Committee would pull its endorsement of Sanders in the 2008 mayor’s race.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign cash on the line, Monday’s meeting had enormous implications for next year’s mayoral contest.

The party’s endorsement comes with important contributions. With Sanders likely facing a challenge from Steve Francis, a wealthy businessman, the county party would help finance the mayor’s run significantly.

An individual or organization can give an unlimited amount of money to the party to help Sanders’ cause. In turn, the party can spend an unlimited amount communicating — in coordination with the mayor’s official campaign — with Republican voters.

The strategy of member communications frees up Sanders’ campaign to target swing voters with its campaign coffers and allows the mayor’s backers to avoid the $320 donation limit imposed by city law on the Sanders campaign committee.

The endorsement also allows Sanders to stake coveted political ground in a race where he so far has felt the most opposition from his right, as Francis is a Republican whose small-government platform in the 2005 mayor’s race forced Sanders to adopt a hard line against a tax increase.

The party’s early endorsement of Sanders in June drew criticism by Francis and committee members who voted against Sanders on Monday, although the party’s leaders said that fast-tracking endorsements for Republican incumbents is standard fare.

Francis accused the party of railroading through the party’s anointment before anyone else had even declared themselves a candidate. He and dissidents on the committee who spoke anonymously accused developers and others with business in front of City Hall of trying to curry favor by pushing through Sanders’ endorsement so early. Francis, miffed at the decision, asked for the party to return the $25,000 he donated to the party as a result.

Looming over the debate leading up to Monday’s meeting, two dissenting committee members said, was the specter that the businesses who wanted to give substantially to the mayor by funneling it through the party would instead withdraw their money if the endorsement was rescinded.

Party chairman Tony Krvaric and committee member Matt Adams, who is the lobbyist for the Building Industry Association of San Diego County, denied the claim.

“I don’t remember hearing anything on that specifically, or how this had to do with fundraising strategy,” Adams said.

On Tuesday, Francis continued his criticism of Sanders and the party leadership for “rushing the endorsement.” He said he had hoped the mayor’s partisan misstep would prompt the party to reconsider its blessing of Sanders. However, Francis said he would not accept the party’s endorsement if they had given it to him.

The county Republican Party’s leadership would not publicly divulge what was said in the private meeting — where only the party’s endorsing committee, Sanders and members of his mayoral and campaign staff were permitted. Rather, Krvaric, the party’s chief spokesman, only said that “support for the mayor was overwhelmingly reaffirmed.”

But multiple sources in the meeting said, on the condition of anonymity, that a motion was made to rescind the endorsement of Sanders in next year’s mayor’s race. The specifics of that vote vary, depending on the source, but most say the motion was defeated by an approximate 4-to-1 margin.

Sanders appeared before the committee in private after the group’s public agenda. During the open portion of the meeting, the mayor was holed up in a room adjacent to the chambers until the issue of his endorsement was raised behind closed doors.

According to witnesses in the room, Sanders explained his reasons for supporting same-sex marriage, which included the argument he tearfully made before television cameras on Sept. 19: That the rights of his daughter Lisa and other gays and lesbians were more important than his campaign promise to oppose same-sex marriage.

Last month’s announcement came as the city was contemplating support for a lawsuit in front of the state Supreme Court, which is considering legalizing marriage of gay and lesbian couples.

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