DANVILLE -- David vs. Goliath. Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Climbing Everest without a Sherpa.
Pick your metaphor. Elizabeth Emken has heard them all and doesn't like any of them. She rejects any notion that her campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is futile.
"I'm going to run as hard as I can every single day because I do believe in the process," she said in a recent interview a few miles from her Danville home.
She offered her own metaphor, likening June's "top two" primary -- in which she beat out 22 other contenders to join Feinstein on the general election ballot -- to "The Hunger Games": Twenty-four went into the forest and only two emerged.
But there's little doubt as to whom the public sees as the heroine Katniss here, and Emken's tireless campaigning and tweeting hasn't improved her standing.
A recent California Business Roundtable/Pepperdine University poll showed that Feinstein had widened her lead to almost 23 points.
Also, Emken's fundraising has been anemic. Feinstein's campaign, despite having lost millions to campaign treasurer Kindee Durkee's embezzlement, had almost $3.1 million in cash on hand as of June 30, while Emken's had about $27,000.
And this past week, a Republican slate mailer company sued her for breach of contract, claiming she still owed $65,000 yet had used campaign funds to repay a $200,000 personal loan she made to her campaign in the spring. Her spokesman said it's a pending legal matter that must be left to attorneys and the court.
"I'm not a millionaire, a billionaire, a CEO or a movie star," Emken said in the interview, before the lawsuit was filed, referring to recent statewide GOP candidates such as Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nor is this her first campaign; she finished fourth among four in 2010's GOP primary for East Bay Rep. Jerry McNerney's seat.
What she is, she said, is an ordinary person: the mom of a severely autistic 20-year-old son; a spouse who, like her husband, has worked to pay their mortgage; a level-headed businesswoman aspiring to public service. "Everything in my background says I'll do what I say I will," she said.
Emken said she has a fighting chance. But San Jose State University political-science professor Larry Gerston respectfully disagrees.
"If Feinstein drops dead, I think she would have a chance,'' Gerston said before quickly adding:
"No, even if that happened, Feinstein would still probably win."
Gerston said that when you come out of the primary with 12.6 percent of the GOP vote as Emken did, "you're not going to get very far."
The California Republican Party's endorsement might've helped Emken reach that level of primary support, anointing her from among a GOP crowd that also included a surfing rabbi; an attorney-dentist active in the "birther" movement that questions President Barack Obama's citizenship; and an 83-year-old man who scaled California's highest mountain as a metaphor for his campaign.
It's a tribute to Feinstein that deep-pocketed, recognizably named Republicans don't dare take her on, Gerston said. "She's one of the very few who has found that moderation works," pleasing liberals on issues such as environmental protection and gun control while not angering conservatives as much as many of her Democratic peers do.
Her name isn't on nearly as many bills as her fingerprints are, Gerston said. "For the most part, she's a behind-the-scenes kind of player who tries to bring sides together and often does so," he said.
But Emken contends Feinstein lacks the people skills to be the people's senator. She rarely meets with constituents, holds few news conferences and only recently had a staffer start tweeting for her, Emken said.
"Feinstein doesn't interact with the people at all, and I think it breeds cynicism," she said.
Contra Costa County GOP chairwoman Becky Kolberg, of San Ramon, said what she admires most about Emken is "her energy, her doggedness in approaching this, her optimism" -- especially considering that Fiorina, a better-known and better-funded Republican, was unable to pick off a less popular Democratic incumbent senator, Barbara Boxer, just two years ago.
"The odds in California certainly are against us; we've seen our registration eaten away gradually," but having an Energizer-bunnylike candidate such as Emken helps buoy Republican campaign volunteers and energize voters, Kolberg said.
Emken said being an incumbent and good fundraiser doesn't mean you're the best for the job.
She noted that while working for autism nonprofits, she shepherded bills through Congress in 2000 and 2006 that focused federal attention and resources on researching, detecting and treating the disorder.
Emken faults Feinstein for letting the 2009 stimulus package pass with so little earmarked for infrastructure -- particularly for California's struggling water system -- yet pushing to expedite the state's high-speed rail project, starting with a stretch in a remote area of the Central Valley.
"I just don't get it," Emken said. "You know what they want in the Central Valley? They want water.
"I have a vast legislative knowledge, I've been a student of the process for 15 years," Emken said. "What has Dianne Feinstein done? ... I'll put my legislative background up against hers any day."
In a phone interview last week, Feinstein said one of her proudest accomplishments this year was legislation requiring the government to issue stringent fuel economy standards for cars.
"By 2020, the mileage will be 50 miles per gallon because of that bill," she said. "It's a huge saving of oil, a huge saving of funds for taxpayers and, of course, a reduction of pollution in the air."
She said she's also proud of her Intelligence Committee chairmanship: Since 2009 she has built bipartisan support for budget bills and investigations of controversial interrogation techniques and drone warfare.
Emken criticizes Feinstein for refusing to debate her. "It's part of the process, and the electorate is due a discussion about the issues facing the country," she said.
Feinstein replied that she has debated many competitors in the past, but this year, "I've achieved a position in this state where there's no one running against me with any background in the area.
"My opponent has virtually no campaign; her whole campaign has essentially been sticking her finger in my eye in one way or another," she said, adding she won't give Emken's "right-wing Republican views" a megaphone if Emken can't find one herself.
"I just don't see a plus in doing" that, Feinstein said.
U.S. Senate candidates
Hometown: San Francisco
Education: Bachelor's in history, Stanford University (1955)
Experience: U.S. senator since 1992; San Francisco mayor 1978-88 and supervisor 1970-78
Education: Bachelor's in economics and political science, UCLA, 1984
Experience: Vice president for government relations at Autism Speaks, 2007-09; legislative consultant and board member at Cure Autism Now 1998-2007; financial analyst at IBM