Bashing California is the game everyone can play, pundits included. But it’s apparently a lot more fun from the GOP side of the aisle.

What could be better for a Republican like Mitt Romney than taking free shots at a dark-blue state like California, knowing that since he’s got absolutely no chance of winning the state, there’s absolutely no downside, either.

It’s especially entertaining if you make the remarks from way outside the Golden State, where folks have only the vaguest notion of what’s going on where the surf meets the turf on the Left Coast.

“Entrepreneurs and business people around the world and here at home think that at some point America is going to become like Greece or like Spain or Italy, or like California,” Romney told an Iowa crowd earlier this month. “Just kidding about that one, in some ways.”

Yeah, sure.

Never mind that Greece, Europe’s economic basket case, has less than one-third the population of California and about one-seventh of the GNP. Or that, according to state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, Greece’s debt is 150 percent of its GNP, compared to California’s 4.2 percent. Slamming those West Coast types is still a guaranteed applause line with any GOP crowd.

As The Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci wrote earlier this week, Republicans see California as a punch line, an example of what happens when those damn liberal Democrats take over. Folks like Sarah Palin can talk about the state’s “out-of-control environmentalists, abysmal real estate market,” and “permanent high unemployment.”

Of course, Palin’s Alaska gets more federal money per capita than any other state in the union, but it’s California that shows the evils of big government.

When it comes to making comparisons, most of the GOP comedians aren’t content to just compare apples to oranges. Instead, they’d rather match cannonballs to birdshot.

Take, for example, the growing cheers for North Dakota as an example of what a state can do with Republican leadership and a willingness to push ahead without government interference – or much in the way of regulation, for that matter.

What North Dakota Could Teach California,” reads one headline. “What North Dakota Knows that California Doesn’t,” says another. “North Dakota 1, California 0,” shouts a third.

The theme for each of the stories is the same: If only California could be more like North Dakota — little regulation, low taxes, few environmentalists, Republican leadership — then it too could have low unemployment, a booming economy and happy days are here again.

I spent part of last week driving through central North Dakota. Nice state, kinda quiet and miles and miles of corn, pastures, badlands and not much else except for a growing number of oil derricks.

Oh yeah, that’s right. One key to a fast-growing economy is to have an energy boom, with the controversial fracking technique opening up enough new oil lands to make the state second only to Texas when it comes to oil production.

Of course it also helps when the entire population of North Dakota in 2011 was 683,932, well below the 812,826 in the 49 square miles of San Francisco.

Here are some more comparisons: North Dakota’s four largest cities of Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot are matched in size by California’s Norwalk, Madera, Delano and Rohnert Park in Sonoma County. Its 10th largest city, Wahpeton, has a population of 7,766. Number 10 in California is Anaheim, population 336,265.

When it comes to employment, it’s sure a lot easier to move the needle when you’re the 48th largest state in the nation, with people streaming in to work the oil fields, than when your population is 37.6 million and counting.

And there’s a price to pay for rapid growth, as California long ago discovered. As a clerk in Bismarck told me, it’s easy to get a job in North Dakota, but almost impossible to find a place to live. Another man talked about the boost in crime the boom has brought to the state.

It’s easy to laugh at California and God knows there are plenty of funny things going on in state politics. But the GOP jokesters should remember that nothing lasts forever, not even economic downturns.

And when – not if — the economy improves, it will be California with the last laugh.

John Wildermuth is a long-time writer on California politics.