SEASIDE — Heading into the 2010 election, Oregon Republicans battled for their party's soul last weekend at the GOP's 46th annual Dorchester Conference.

Among the weapons for some of the 700-plus delegates and 42 exhibitors were 3-inch rubber fetuses (at an Oregon Right to Life table), tales of a Mexican welfare scammer with 16 kids (at the Oregonians for Immigration Reform exhibit) and raw energy from groups such as the tea party movement and the 912 Project.

Other GOP groups of longer standing fired off a less controversial message in this election year, when the party hopes to win the governor's seat for the first time since 1982 and trim huge Democratic majorities in the Legislature.

"Government should be fiscally responsible, limited and non-intrusive," read the credo of a group called Oregon Republican Mainstream. For Oregon Republicans to win, they must answer three pressing questions that emerged among convention-goers over the weekend:

Will new groups come inside the GOP tent or burn it down?

About 200 more people and twice the normal number of exhibitors attended the GOP's annual summit at the Seaside Convention Center.

Organizers credit those numbers to excitement over such GOP successes as Scott Brown's U.S. Senate win this year in Massachusetts and pick-ups last November in the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races. They also cite anger at President Obama and Democrats who control Congress and the Oregon Legislature.

State GOP chairman Bob Tiernan says he's met several times with tea party groups and other political newcomers. He thinks those groups will back GOP candidates.

"You have a very large group of people out there who are very upset," Tiernan says. "Bottom line, they are us [Republicans]."

Others are less certain. Bob Goodwin, a board member of the 912 Project (which takes its name from a Glenn Beck-instituted movement) in Salem, says his group includes a lot of political rookies who are conservative but follow no ideology other than the Constitution and impatience with the status quo.

The tea party took some ribbing Saturday night in the "World (In)Famous Dorchester Tent Show."

In a skit featuring two mock NPR hosts interviewing a mock tea partyer, the audience learned that tea party diversity extends to "white people from all walks of life," and that "we [the tea party] focus on really important things, like how Obama is a Muslim and wasn't born in this country."

"These are not angry mobs," said the Oregon GOP's top elected official, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River). "They are solid American citizens."

Will Republicans move beyond litmus-test issues?

Many Dorchester attendees would rather put aside such divisive symbols as Right-to-Life's 3-inch rubber fetuses.

"We're putting social issues up on a bookshelf," Tiernan says.

Dorchester's program this year exemplified the move away from litmus-test issues like abortion and gay rights.

This year, the first issue up for debate was whether locator beacons should be mandatory for mountain climbers (no, they abridge freedom, delegates decided); the last was whether Oregon's revenue system needs reform (duh). "When the boat is sinking, you're not worried what colors the oars are," Tiernan says.

Who will lead the party?

For many, the main event was Friday night's gubernatorial debate. Dueling roadside signs for the candidates lined U.S. 26 to Seaside like crumbs leading to a cookie jar.

Chris Dudley, the former Portland Trail Blazer turned rookie candidate, has captured nearly all the money and endorsements so far. But Dudley told the audience "being in government for 30 years does not make you a leader." Perhaps. But neither does that describe his leading opponent, former Pixelworks CEO Allen Alley.

For his part, Alley mixed examples from his business background with specifics about education and policy. Forceful and animated, he described himself leading a Republican charge on the Capitol "carrying a calculator like a lightsaber."

Alley noted that he alone was meeting with unions and enviros. That play for the middle might work, but it hasn't impressed key GOP groups such as the Oregon Restaurant Association and the Farm Bureau, which endorsed Dudley. In the straw poll Sunday, however, Alley got more votes than Dudley and ex-legislator John Lim combined.