SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After steep losses at the polls and successive years of dwindling registration, California Republicans gathered this weekend amid infighting over the direction of a party that is ideologically divided and facing an uncertain future in a rapidly changing state.

For the first time in many years, frustrated moderates are publicly pushing back, resisting efforts to further insulate the party in what they say is an effort to save the California GOP from itself. In the process, they hope the party will begin to appeal to independent and minority voters, the fastest-growing segments of the state's electorate.

The party lost every statewide election last fall and has dropped to less than one-third of all registered voters in a state that claims conservative icon — and former governor — Ronald Reagan as a favorite son.

"It's a healthy debate that this party is finally having between people who are very rigid ideologically versus those who want to regain numbers to win elections," said Julie Soderlund, a consultant to Republican candidates and former spokeswoman to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2010 U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina.

The feud at the party's spring convention in Sacramento includes a proposal to let local GOP groups decide the party's nominees under the new top-two primary system. They also were considering a divisive resolution to brand Republican lawmakers as traitors for compromising on the state budget, but it was withdrawn in a party committee meeting.

Delegates heatedly debated a proposal to help the party blunt the effects of Proposition 14, the open primary measure that was intended to produce more moderate candidates from both parties.

The outgoing party chairman and other insiders want to choose which candidates should run for office, thereby giving the party control over who gets nominated. Others say such a move will erode debate within the party and further alienate centrist voters.

The debate, however, reached beyond insider politics.

Despite a Republican surge at the polls nationwide last November and two well-funded candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, the GOP lost every statewide race in California and a seat in the state Assembly to Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature. Voter registration has slipped below 31 percent, compared with 44 percent for Democrats and 20 percent for independents.

The party's donors are frustrated and reconsidering whether they should invest in an organization that offers few returns, said Jeff Miller, a GOP fundraiser.

"If we continue to only talk to 30 percent of the electorate, we're going to continue to lose. And the donor community is very frustrated," he said. "This is investments for them. They do that because they believe the Republican philosophies are the best for the state, but they're not going to continue to dump money into a bad investment."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a potential GOP presidential candidate, was set to address the gathering Saturday night. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton spoke Friday night, focusing mostly on foreign policy and indicating he, too, was considering a 2012 presidential run.

Speaking to reporters, Barbour declined to wade into California politics, saying only that Republicans also were unpopular in Mississippi when he started working on campaigns there in 1968.

"Needless to say, I've taken the long-term view," he said, noting that seven out of eight statewide elected officials there are Republicans today. "I've seen change in my state, and I suspect we'll see change in this state."

He reiterated his intention to decide on a 2012 presidential run by the end of April.

Despite pleas for moderation, die-hard party activists in California have been showing their contempt this weekend for a group of rank-and-file Republican lawmakers who have been negotiating with Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, over his proposed budget. The governor wants the tax extensions, along with $12.5 billion in spending cuts, to help close the state's $26.6 billion deficit.

Outgoing party Chairman Ron Nehring repeatedly praised legislative Republicans for refusing to support Brown's plan to ask voters in a June special election to extend income, sales and vehicle taxes for an additional five years.

Delegate Elaine Henderson, 75, of Rancho Mirage, said Republicans should not compromise any of the party's principles and that they've done as much as possible to reach out to Californians who increasingly disagree with their views.

"We're not moving more to the right, so much as the other guys are moving more to the left," she said.

Five Republican state senators who have been meeting with Brown are seeking pension reform, a state spending cap and other trade-offs in exchange for considering Brown's special election proposal. The governor in recent weeks blamed the looming party convention for stalling budget negotiations, saying many Republican lawmakers were fearful of being lampooned by delegates.

One of the senators, Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, remained unapologetic for his discussions with Brown. "Republicans can't be afraid to step up and negotiate in good faith. Ronald Reagan negotiated with the Soviets; I'm comfortable having a conversation with Jerry Brown," he said.

Blakeslee walked out in frustration from a debate over party strategy regarding the top-two primary system, but he likened the weekend disputes to a family squabble.

The party activist responsible for the resolution that would have branded Blakeslee and others as traitors if they agree to support Brown's special election plan conceded that the language probably went too far.

"The negative language was probably bad, calling them traitors," said Celeste Greig, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative faction of the state party. "In hindsight, I would have removed that, maybe had called them misinformed because that's what they are."

The debate over how to address California's massive budget deficit also provided the backdrop to a temporary drama inside the Hyatt Regency, the hotel across the street from the Capitol where the weekend convention was held.

About a dozen people protesting budget cuts to social services, several of them in wheelchairs, occupied the hotel's foyer, holding signs reading "Tax the rich," "Tax big oil" and "Our lives are precious." Jean Stewart, of El Sobrante in the San Francisco Bay area, said she was upset at lawmakers of both parties for the cuts made during this week's legislative sessions.

"The folks you see here, many of the people I know, may die because of the cuts they imposed. So we're here demanding justice. We're demanding an equitable tax structure," she said. "The taxes that are being debated on the June budget won't even begin to create an equitable tax structure."

Associated Press writer Lien Hoang contributed to this report.