SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Neel Kashkari, a first-time candidate for office, was hoping to spark a conversation with California voters this year about growing inequality in the state's rebounding economy, whether the state is economically competitive, and how to reform its underperforming K-12 school system.
But without enough money or ground support, the Republican candidate for governor has been unable to force the issues into the spotlight in his effort to unseat incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown.
Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who oversaw the federal bank bailout, took an unusual approach for a Republican when he said he wanted to start a debate about income inequality.
Even with a booming technology sector and pockets of skyrocketing home prices, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's supplemental poverty measure.
Statewide unemployment is 7.3 percent, but it remains in double digits in some areas of the agricultural Central Valley.
To drive home the point, Kashkari, 41, spent a week living on the streets of Fresno this summer. He slept on park benches and sought off-the-books work outside a home supply store, then released a campaign video of his experiences.
"These problems are of our own making. That means they're within our capacity to solve," a disheveled Kashkari said at the end of the week. "We know how to rein in regulations so our businesses can grow and thrive and hire. ... We as Californians just have to demand that our leaders in Sacramento make big changes."
The Republican also has supported a Los Angeles County Superior Court ruling that found California's teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional because poor and minority students are less likely to get high-quality teachers than other students.
School reformers have rallied around the decision, but Brown has appealed it. When pressed, Brown says he is open to changing tenure laws, although he believes the issue will pass.
Despite his enthusiasm on such issues, Kashkari has mostly been unable to gain traction with voters.
The candidates have met in only one debate, which was carried on a few public television stations and aired the same night as the start of the NFL season. Public opinion polls show Brown has a lead of 16 to 21 percentage points.
Kashkari's overmatched campaign means Brown has not been forced to spend much money. He reported $21 million in his campaign account and another $6 million in a separate ballot measure account in mid-October. Kashkari had less than $1 million remaining.
The 76-year-old governor did not even hold official campaign events until October, and his few public appearances have focused almost entirely on Propositions 1 and 2 — the ballot measures he is promoting — which would commit $7.5 billion to water infrastructure and strengthen the state's rainy day fund.
"He's not really letting you know what his priorities are for a fourth term," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former speechwriter to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "He could actually be in a very odd position, emerging with a 20-point win on Tuesday and with no mandate."
The governor bristled last week when reporters asked him to lay out his vision for another term, saying voters should judge him by his work over the past four years. He gave a similar response in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month, saying he would continue working to restructure state prisons, reform school financing rules, address water supply and promote fiscal stability.
This year's gubernatorial race is a sharp contrast to 2010, when voters were bombarded by campaign ads, and the candidates engaged in a robust debate about the state's future. Brown jousted with Republican nominee Meg Whitman in three wide-ranging debates. Both issued policy papers outlining their plans.
Asked Thursday whether Californians have missed out on an opportunity for a discussion of the issues, Brown suggested they watch footage of the lone debate "over and over again" to discern the candidates' positions.
"The big issues of taxes, criminal law, transportation, schools, water, electricity — these matters have taken up all the time and I've been very active in all of them," he told reporters after casting an early ballot in Oakland. "I think California has a very advanced agenda. I think people are getting well informed. And I don't think some artificial campaign debate would necessarily add to anything."
Associated Press writer Terence Chea contributed to this report from Oakland.