Midway through his first year in the California Assembly, Jim Brulte decided the place wasn't for him. It was 1991. The state faced a $14 billion deficit, schools and local governments were being forced to cut deeply into their programs, lobbyists were besieging Sacramento on behalf of their clients, legislators were trying to digest a new initiative that had just slapped term limits on them. Senior Assembly members were seething with anger, the two parties were furious at each other--and each caucus was riven by dissension over how to proceed.

"Not only were the battles between the Republicans and Democrats horribly personal, but the battles between Republicans and Republicans and between Democrats and Democrats were personal, too," recalls Brulte, 44, who represents suburbs east of Los Angeles. "I all but concluded I wasn't going to run for reelection. The atmosphere was just vile."

Brulte did stick it out, though, and at the end of his freshman year was elected to lead the GOP minority in the Assembly. Since then, he has become not only the most respected Republican legislative presence in the state--capped off this April by his ascension to Senate minority leader--but the man many onlookers believe holds the future of the California GOP in his hands. In no small part, he has done it by shunning the bitter, intensely personal brand of politics that seemed to be the order of the day in Sacramento when he arrived.

To be sure, Brulte's importance to the GOP rests not so much on his demeanor as on his strategic skill. Bruce Cain, the director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, says Brulte "has a reputation as the best political strategist in the Republican Party." Or, as John Jacobs, the late political editor of the California-based McClatchy Newspapers, argued last year, Brulte is a triple threat. "He does policy. He does politics. He does money." For a legislative leader, that doesn't leave too many bases uncovered.

As a party leader, Brulte has made a point of trying to broaden the Republican appeal by recruiting more women and minority candidates. As state GOP finance chair, he has tried to loosen the hold that the party's most conservative elements have held over its public countenance. And as a legislative leader, Brulte is a believer in the notion that compromise is sometimes necessary. He says the tendency within both parties in recent years to elect strident advocates needs to be countered by leaders who know how to reconcile differences.

This makes him, in a way, a throwback to the legislature's heyday in the 1960s, when legislators of different partisan and ideological bents worked together to create the public infrastructure-- universities, freeways, water systems--that California continues to depend on. If he is doing his job right, Brulte insists, "governing is about ideas," and the fights in the Senate "are about ideology, and never about people."

Last December, for instance, Republicans in the Senate rolled out a centrist budget plan whose proposals--including reduced fees for state college students, smaller high-school class sizes, and use of the gasoline sales tax instead of bonds for highway construction--signaled a clear GOP intention to cooperate with the Democratic majority in putting together this year's budget. It was a role that, a few years ago, the Republican minority would not even have tried to play. But a number of their ideas--including the gas-tax plan--wound up in Democratic Governor Gray Davis's final budget.

"As a minority," says Brulte, who spent years as a legislative staff aide before his election, "you can make yourself irrelevant by howling at the wind and opposing simply for the sake of opposing, or you can put together views that reflect a broad philosophy. To the extent that the ideas are well thought out and make sense, even a minority party can have a disproportionate influence."