By ALEX ISENSTADT | 4/3/12 11:30 PM EDT

As a fast-rising lawmaker early in his congressional career, Kevin McCarthy vigorously cultivated friends in the 87-member Republican freshman class, an effort that catapulted him into one of the most powerful positions in the House.

Now the ambitious California congressman is setting his sights on his home state, looking to rebuild a Republican Party in desperate need of repair.

With California Republicans suffering stinging losses in the 2010 gubernatorial and Senate races and the party deep in the minority in both houses of the state Legislature, McCarthy has launched Trailblazers, a program aimed at grooming candidates running for state legislative office. McCarthy, the House majority whip, hopes these recruits will someday be ready to run for statewide office.

Trailblazers is closely modeled after Young Guns, a largely successful effort spearheaded by McCarthy during the 2008 elections, which supports GOP candidates seeking House seats. Young Guns was revived for the 2010 midterms, allowing McCarthy to introduce himself to many of the Republicans who would win that year and is being used again in 2012.

Trailblazers is just getting started. So far, it’s held two candidate workshops — what it calls “campaign colleges” — in Sacramento and Los Angeles and has inducted 41 candidates. Those overseeing Trailblazers said only the most polished candidates will meet the benchmarks needed to rise through the program and receive support.

For McCarthy, a 47-year-old former California Assembly leader who was elected to the House in 2006, the new effort marks an opportunity for political advancement. Just as Young Guns helped to cement McCarthy’s rapid ascent through the House GOP leadership ranks, Trailblazers could help him expand his base of California political support in the event he wants to pursue a run for higher office.

“He’s on a tremendous track in D.C., and it looks like he can do more,” said Duf Sundheim, a former California Republican Party chairman. “Clearly, he has the respect and capability to run statewide.”

In an interview, McCarthy insisted that his ambitions remained in the House for which he serves as the top Republican vote-counter and is regarded as a go-to figure for many of the House freshmen who rely on him for political and legislative advice.

“I think it’s difficult for me to run statewide from where I’m at. I’m not from a major metropolitan area. I don’t view running from Congress as a good platform. It’s got to be something you want to do as well. I like what I do here,” McCarthy said. “But I think I have a responsibility at the same time to help build the Republican Party in the state. This is something I’ve always done.”

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