FIREBAUGH, Calif. (AP) -- Among Yolanda Gordillo's childhood memories of California's Central Valley are the days she spent helping her parents in the unglamorous but essential work performed in the fields by Mexican immigrants.
Many of her summers were spent weeding farms, helping her family earn extra money. Seeing the labor and long hours put in by immigrants gave her a desire to see their interests protected. It is one of the main reasons she became a Democrat when she was old enough to register to vote.
Yet the 42-year-old receptionist finds herself drawn to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina this year, as people all around her are struggling. She hopes the business background of the former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive will help California pull out of its deep recession, which has hit the Central Valley especially hard.
"I'm leaning more toward her," Gordillo said, as she prepared the payroll for Meyers Farming in Firebaugh, an agricultural community with a population of 7,000 and an unemployment rate of nearly 27 percent. "I think we need a change."
Gordillo is just the kind of swing voter Republicans will need if they hope to capture the governor's and U.S. Senate seats next week. Republicans see these Central Valley towns as the centerpiece of their election-year strategy in California.
Fiorina and GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman have visited the valley dozens of times, going up and down an agriculturally rich and culturally diverse region the size of Tennessee, eating chili dogs from local diners and mingling with farmers angered by cutbacks to federal water deliveries.
They hope to seize on voter frustration with the economy and translate that into statewide victories over Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is seeking a fourth term, and state Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is seeking an encore as governor.
"It's an area that may have the angriest voters and the most likeliest to revolt against the incumbents," Whitman campaign adviser Rob Stutzman said.
Brown and Boxer have been focused on turning out the Democrats' core supporters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other coastal cities. Republicans have targeted California's interior, where they have a better chance at persuading moderate Democrats and independents to vote for them in order to have a shot at winning in a state where Democrats have a 13 percentage point voter registration advantage.
The Central Valley makes up just 17 percent of the state's 17 million registered voters. But a strong turnout by Republicans in those inland counties, equally strong showings in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties to the south, and a depressed Democrat turnout could provide a path to victory for Whitman and Fiorina.
Filled with rice and tomato fields, almond and pistachio orchards, cattle and dairy ranches, the region's products feed the country and are shipped around the world.
It has a large Hispanic population, both settled and newly arrived. And even though party registration is split fairly even, residents carry a conservative streak.
Recently, three years of drought and a federal court's mandate to protect endangered fish have reduced water allocations to farmers, forcing many to fallow their fields. That has contributed to unemployment for a quarter of the population in many towns, leading to the embarrassment of workers in one of the country's most agriculturally rich regions standing in bread lines to feed their families.
The water cutbacks have produced animosity toward Congress. Signs planted in dying fields along Interstate 5 and Highway 99, the north-south conduits through the valley, read "Congress Created Dust Bowl"
In accepting the endorsement of the Fresno Deputy Sheriff's Association, Fiorina blamed Boxer for caring too much about endangered fish and refusing to help farmers.
"Barbara Boxer has stood in the way of getting the water turned back on in the Central Valley," Fiorina said.
Boxer's staff says the allegation is misleading because it is partly based on a proposed amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to increase water deliveries. Boxer didn't take a position on the amendment because it didn't come to a vote. Rather, California's two senators worked administratively and got additional water, according to the Boxer campaign.
Others see Fiorina and Whitman using the water shortage as a scare tactic to entice the valley's Latino voters.
Sarah Reyes, a former Democratic state lawmaker who now works for California Endowment, a health foundation, said she understands her community is frustrated but believes Brown and Boxer will be better public servants for the region. She said Republicans are claiming to champion water rights without offering real solutions.
"I would say to all of them, 'Who are you trying to fool?'" Reyes said.
In Firebaugh, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1, but voters aren't always loyal to their parties. Gordillo and her friend, 40-year-old Gloria Diaz, have seen relatives laid off and watched them battle home foreclosures.
Diaz, who works in an insurance office, said she likes Whitman's message of job creation after watching snippets of the three gubernatorial debates.
"I was actually more impressed with Meg. Just her way of handling herself and the response to some of the questions," said the mother of 3-year-old twins.
Fiorina has visited the area so many times she says she's lost count. Her campaign counted 25 trips so far, with more coming during the campaign's final weekend.
Meanwhile, Whitman made her 10th visit to Bakersfield and Kern County on Oct. 14. The Bakersfield Californian noted that Brown hasn't had any public events in the city and said Boxer stopped there just once.
"I want to market the Central Valley to high tech, biotech and green tech," Whitman said. "If you're thinking of expanding to a neighboring state? Look at the Central Valley first. If you're going to put a call center in Utah, let's have one in Bakersfield."
Almost all her campaign stops on Friday are in the Central Valley, even as recent polls show the strategy might not be enough for Whitman to overtake Brown.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.