SAN JOSE -- Neel Kashkari made the best of it Wednesday.

As news broke that the latest Field Poll found him trailing far behind fellow Republican candidate for governor Tim Donnelly -- with both being slaughtered by Gov. Jerry Brown -- Kashkari squared his shoulders, fixed his smile and told about 200 Rotary Club members that "winning as a Republican in California will be very hard but not impossible."

He said he decided to run only after Democrats won their legislative supermajorities in 2012. "I said, 'Someone has to fight to turn this around,' and I looked around the state and I didn't see a bench."

A member of the audience asked how he can run while representing a party that, at least at the national level, opposes gay rights, rolls back voting-rights legislation and sometimes describes the poor as "takers and moochers."

"All of the perceptions that you just articulated are part of why I decided to do this," Kashkari replied, noting that his top goal is to win but his second goal "is to rebuild the Republican Party around a very positive, inclusive image" of fighting for the poor and middle class. "I have to be an optimist."

The former U.S. Treasury Department official, now an Orange County asset manager, told reporters he's undaunted: "We're honestly where we thought we'd be" without having run any paid ads or direct mail so far, he said.


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That will start about May 5, when vote-by-mail ballots start reaching voters, with television ads and direct mail focused on San Diego, Orange County and other areas with enough conservatives and moderates to make it worthwhile, he said. Donnelly might be ahead now, he said, but "I believe we're going to have a substantial resource advantage."

Any blitz Kashkari mounts will have to be extremely frugal by California standards. He had about $903,000 cash on hand as of March 17 and has raised at least about $150,000 since then. That's better than Donnelly has been doing, but it's a fraction of Brown's $19.7 million war chest.

Kashkari told the audience Wednesday that Brown is an honorable man who chose a career in public service despite being born into a life of privilege, but who is unwilling to make the big changes California needs.

Since launching his campaign in January, Kashkari has tried to leverage voters' outrage over job creation he says is too slow, underperforming schools and Brown's commitment to an increasingly unpopular high-speed rail plan. But the Field Poll found Brown's job approval at a record-high 59 percent and disapproval at 32 percent -- not much outrage for an opponent to leverage.

The poll also found that 57 percent of likely voters in June's primary support Brown while 17 percent support Donnelly -- a highly conservative assemblyman whose campaign started months before Kashkari's -- 3 percent support Laguna Beach Mayor Andrew Blount, 2 percent support Kashkari and 20 percent remain undecided. Donnelly was backed by about 11 times as many Republican likely voters as Kashkari -- and Brown is backed by five times as many.

It wasn't the first poll to show Kashkari within the margin of error of getting no votes at all, and California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte all but wrote off the governor's race at last month's GOP convention.

Democrats are gloating.

"The battle royal between the Wall Street and tea party wings of the Republican Party is well underway, but with less than 60 days to go, it appears Tim 'Tea Party' Donnelly has 'Wall Street' Neel Kashkari on the ropes," California Democratic Party spokesman Tenoch Flores said Wednesday.

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.