GOP newcomer hopes days in D.C. will boost bid for Calif. governor

For all of the complexity of modern campaigns, one thing about running in California has stood the test of time: it's a tough place for a newcomer to win statewide.

"The hardest part is, right now, I'm unknown," says Neel Kashkari.

And to change that, the first time Republican candidate for governor needs money, a good message, and some luck.

Kashkari, 40, is the most well-financed GOP challenger at this stage for one of the two spots on November's ballot -- the other presumably to be claimed by Gov. Jerry Brown. June's election will the first statewide contest in California history in which only the top two vote-getters, regardless of political party, move on.

For Kashkari, the quest now is to get enough momentum to make the second ballot. And yet, the rough and tumble world of a political campaign is hardly the toughest thing he's ever experienced. For that, just roll back the clock to the fall of 2008.

"I have experience in Washington battling the worst economic crisis literally since the Great Depression," says the Orange County resident, born in Ohio to immigrant parents from India.

Kashkari was an assistant U.S. treasury secretary during the collapse of the nation's financial system when he was asked to help craft the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion effort to stabilize banks and calm the markets.

"I think that is great training to make the major changes we need to make in California," he said in a recent interview.

Kashkari says those changes all revolve around the state's education system and sparking new job creation. The GOP candidate has yet to offer details on what he'd do, but suggests no other issues facing California come even close. And unlike most Republicans, Kashkari seems to be trying to outflank Brown on what most would consider the left side of the political spectrum -- slamming the Democratic incumbent on doing little to nothing to combat poverty or the growing income gap in the state.

"Jerry Brown's legacy is the destruction of the middle class in California," the candidate recently said in a speech to the Sacramento Press Club.

But Kashkari, though some in his party have suggested he's not Republican enough, is hard to peg as liberal. The candidate has suggested he'd consider school vouchers, he calls himself a libertarian on social issues, and says he would propose a major expansion of oil drilling in California if elected.

"We're crazy for turning on backs on this," he said on calls to expand drilling.

That word -- "crazy" -- is a particular favorite of the newcomer candidate when it comes to a public works project the incumbent believes represents the future of California: the $68 billion effort to link San Francisco and Los Angeles by high speed rail. Borrowing the title of a 1980 heavy metal classic, Kashkari urges on his website (and is even peddling bumper stickers) for the cancellation of the "crazy train."

"We need to focus our resources on our biggest issues," he says. "And an almost $70 billion vanity project from LA to San Francisco? We need to cancel the crazy train."

Only twice in the last 50 years have Californians elected a governor who had never before held office: Ronald Reagan in 1966, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. While Neel Kashkari still must best the other candidates on the June ballot, he believes once voters know who he is, his odds aren't as long as some believe.

"Governor Brown's poll numbers show that he's vulnerable, " he said. "For a Democratic governor in a Democratic state, his re-elect numbers should be a lot higher. That's because California families are feeling the anxiety of this weak economy."


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