Maybe it's because there are only three opportunities to run for statewide office in California this year without having to take on an incumbent.

Perhaps it's a desire to test the possibilities of California's new top-two primary system during its first application in contests for state constitutional offices.

Whatever the reason, a most unlikely scenario is unfolding as the 2014 California primary election approaches: The race for secretary of state has become the most interesting statewide political race.

It attracted a field of eight candidates, and was shaping up to be interesting enough even before it was shaken by a stunning development. One of those candidates, whose name will remain on the ballot even though he has withdrawn from the campaign, is San Francisco state Sen. Leland Yee, who dropped out after he was indicted on charges of political corruption and international firearms trafficking.

The remaining candidates include:

  • Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, of Los Angeles, an MIT-educated engineer who was elected to the City Council of the nation's second-largest city at age 26.

  • Derek Cressman, the former director of Common Cause's California operations and a bulldog political reformer, who is also running as a Democrat.

  • Dan Schnur, the one-time spokesman for former Gov. Pete Wilson and later for Arizona Sen. John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" presidential campaign, who fled politics for academia and took over USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. He's shed his Republican affiliation and is running as an independent.

  • Pete Peterson, a Republican who is executive director of Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute, a public policy think tank that trains elected officials in the art of public engagement.

    Those are the four who have been invited to an unusual -- for a secretary-of-state contest -- debate later this month sponsored by the Sacramento Press Club. And that itself generated another element of interest this week when Green Party candidate David Curtis filed a complaint with the IRS challenging the press club's tax-exempt status because it failed to invite him.

    Curtis claims the snub is particularly egregious because a Field Poll this month showed him leading both Schnur and Cressman.

    In the end, this race is likely to turn out to be interesting only to Sacramento insiders and political theorists. The near-certain result is that Padilla, the name-brand Democrat, and Peterson, the name-brand Republican, will advance to the general election.

    The reality is it is next to impossible to get voters to engage in contests that far down the ballot. The cost to change that by waging a campaign that includes enough television commercials to get anyone to notice is prohibitive. Even if a candidate were to raise, say, $3 million, that buys next to nothing in a California statewide campaign.

    But even if the contest turns out to be less than close, it has already become spirited. Significantly, that has driven the candidates to come up with some pretty good ideas.

    Schnur seems to be running for political reformer in chief, advocating a number of ideas that the secretary of state would have no ability to implement. His effort to use a campaign slogan -- "political reform advocate" -- as his official ballot designation was rejected by a judge. He had to settle for "political involvement educator" instead.

    Still, he puts forth some provocative ideas, such as converting the office to nonpartisan.

    Peterson's five-point plan includes encouraging online voter registration at all "points of contact" a citizen has with state government.

    Padilla is visiting the registrar of voters in every California county and coming up with some intriguing "best election practices" ideas.

    Among them: providing early-voting outlets that can produce an individualized ballot for any voter, from any precinct in a county; sending text messages to remind voters to return mail-in ballots; and requiring that candidates submit to elections officials all paid advertisements so they are available for public review.

    Cressman is calling for a statewide vote on an advisory measure to ask Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that said corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on independent political campaigns.

    He notes that two other states have done so, and asserts that only intense bottom-up pressure will ever force Congress to take an action not in the best interest of incumbents.

    It's a healthy thing, competition in political campaigns, regardless of whether it's real or imagined.