As the summer wears on and the polls still show him far behind Gov. Jerry Brown, Neel Kashkari is running the most energetic and high-profile campaign for governor that money can't buy.
In 2010, billionaire Republican nominee Meg Whitman had sunk almost $91.1 million of her own fortune into her campaign by this point in the year, with another $53.1 million yet to come. Kashkari -- a former U.S. Treasury Department official and asset manager from Laguna Beach -- has taken about $2.1 million out of his own pocket so far. And with other cash just dribbling in, he's striving to get his message out on a shoestring.
He has hosted four radio shows since the primary, causing some political observers to wonder whether he's gunning to be the next Rush Limbaugh instead of the next governor. He crashed Brown's speech at a teachers union convention, highlighting the incumbent's cozy labor ties. He has challenged Brown to 10 debates and meetings, stumped with embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, spoken at a libertarian tech conference and marched in San Diego's LGBT pride parade -- all with an "I'm a new kind of Republican" message.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Wednesday showed Brown favored by 52 percent of likely voters and Kashkari by 33 percent -- almost exactly the same as a Field poll found soon after the primary. So Kashkari strives on to convince voters that California, with its struggling public schools and by some measures the nation's highest poverty rate, isn't safe in Brown's hands for four more years.
"He's doing what I would do," said Edmond ï»¿Costantini, a UC Davis political science professor emeritus. "If you're trying to be prudent in terms of spending, it makes a lot of sense. You need to get your name out there, get people curious about you, and it seems the best strategy ... is to look for ways to get free media coverage."
But how long can Kashkari keep this up without being drowned out?
Brown has incumbency's bully pulpit and had $20.7 million banked for his campaign as of mid-May, while Kashkari had about $1.4 million, most of which he probably spent in the primary campaign's final weeks to cement his come-from-behind victory over tea party favorite Tim Donnelly.
As of Sunday, Kashkari had reported raising about $312,000 in big donations since the June 3 primary, including $54,400 from his parents. Brown, who hasn't run a single TV or radio ad this year, has raised about $349,000 since the primary.
Campaign spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said Kashkari was too busy last week to answer questions from this newspaper. But, she assured a reporter, he remains upbeat.
"There's no question the unions once again will provide the governor with whatever resources he needs to protect their status quo," she said. "But while (polls show) all voters know the governor, only half of them support his re-election. That proves he's vulnerable, and we are confident we will have the resources to communicate Neel's message to voters."
Unions definitely support Brown, but so do many big businesses. His post-primary contributors include Coca-Cola North America, PepsiCo Inc., CH2M Hill Inc., AstraZeneca, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson and Paramount Pictures.
Costantini said Brown typically sticks to an "even if you've got it, don't flaunt it" philosophy. "I don't think he's comfortable with spending, spending, spending, even if he's got it available and particularly if he doesn't need to."
Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento, said "people aren't buying" Kashkari's claim that California's economy and schools are on the rocks.
"He's doing what he has to do, but I sure don't consider it a prescription for success," Boilard said. "I don't think he provides enough contrast to Jerry Brown, who already comes across as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal."
Since the primary, Kashkari has guest-hosted four radio talk shows in Sacramento, Fresno and Los Angeles, including the conservative John and Ken Show on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles -- the nation's most-listened-to local talk radio program. "It's been a great opportunity to reach out to voters of all stripes," Kinner said.
But Boilard said "most of those talk show gigs are more preaching to the choir," noting that only 28 percent of California voters are Republicans. "It's good to hold onto your base, but I look at the independent voters as the place he has to move the needle -- and right now the independent voters are breaking toward Jerry Brown."
The PPIC poll found 80 percent of Democrats back Brown, while 70 percent of Republicans back Kashkari. Brown was leading among independents 52 percent to 28 percent.
The Federal Communications Commission's "equal-time rule" means Brown could demand airtime from the radio stations where Kashkari guest-hosted shows, said Jonathan Kotler, an attorney and associate professor in the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "But I'd think the best strategy would be to ignore him (Kashkari), because there must be a lot of people out there like me who have never heard of the guy."
Asked whether the governor would seek equal time, Brown's campaign spokesman Dan Newman replied, "Unlikely -- he has a busy and demanding day job."
BY THE NUMBERS:
governor's race in social media
One low-budget way to get a campaign message out is through social media. Here's how Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican candidate Neel Kashkari stacked up as of Sunday:
Twitter -- Brown has 1.05 million followers, Kashkari 4,756
Facebook -- Brown has 157,928 likes, Kashkari 76,989
Instagram -- Brown doesn't use it; Kashkari has 400 followers
Google+ -- Brown has 1,197,068 followers, Kashkari 55