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By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — On a recent sunny Sunday in South Los Angeles, worshipers gathered in a wood-beam Pentecostal church to sing and offer testimonials of faith. In the middle of the African-American congregation, swaying during the hymns and dropping money into the collection basket, stood Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor.

Democratic politicians often drop by the Living Gospel Church — Rep. Maxine Waters and former Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke are familiar faces. But Kashkari is the first GOP candidate to visit, said church administrator Lafayette Shelton.

The campaign appearance — like Kashkari’s weeklong experiment living as a homeless person last month and marching in a San Diego gay pride parade — reflects the unconventional campaign he hopes to mount in his improbable run against Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

It’s a strategy driven by two factors: the need to create a buzz with little money — the Laguna Beach millionaire’s campaign is practically broke — and a belief that the state GOP needs to expand beyond its small, mostly white share of California voters to survive.

“He’s running the best campaign money can’t buy,” said Claremont-McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney.

Provocative gambits are old standbys in politics.

Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Lawton Chiles of Florida each walked more than 1,000 miles in their respective states during campaigns in the 1970s. Bob Graham of Florida and Tom Harkin of Iowa held “workdays,” doing the jobs of their constituents, such as plucking chickens and shoveling horse manure.

Last month, several Democratic politicians lived on $77 for a week, the average earnings after taxes and housing costs for a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage.

In sleeping on park benches, eating at a food bank and showering only once, as Kashkari says he did, the former chief of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout is trying to generate attention for a campaign that is largely being ignored. And he is hoping such moves will help him forge an image as a new kind of Republican.

Even many members of his own party have viewed the first-time candidate as a dilettante. Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the state GOP, said many Republicans supported Kashkari in the June primary out of alarm over the candidacy of controversial conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks). They had little enthusiasm for Kashkari because of his 2008 vote for President Barack Obama, his role in the bank bailout and his liberal social views, such as support for gay marriage.

Now some, including Dhillon, have changed their minds.

Kashkari’s effort to highlight poverty and unemployment was “a stance a lot of us would love to see other Republican politicians take — show some imagination and flair and take some risks and really walk the walk of the people in California who are suffering…. That is dedication, that is for real, and I am impressed,” Dhillon said.

Brown’s camp was not. The governor’s political spokesman, Dan Newman, branded Kashkari’s week among Fresno’s homeless a cynical stunt and said the candidate’s record contradicts his words. He questioned Kashkari’s concern about the impoverished, saying the candidate saved big banks while people lost their homes.

And he dismissed the Republican’s professed commitment to gay rights, pointing out his history of supporting candidates who opposed gay marriage, including President George W. Bush and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“It’s great that he now finds it politically expedient to pretend to care about issues like poverty and civil rights,” Newman said. “But people are judged by their actions.”

Kashkari faces long odds against Brown, who boasts a $22 million war chest and a 20-point lead in opinion polls. The Republican hopes to get some traction by arguing that the “California comeback” Brown has touted is not a reality for many.

“I’m using every tactic, every creative strategy I can come up with to force us in this state to have conversations” about the millions of Californians who are still struggling, Kashkari said in an interview. “I’m going to keep doing things like this, and he’s going to hide and duck, and I’m not going to let him get away with it.”

Kashkari has criticized Brown for paying too little attention to poverty and education in disadvantaged communities, topics that are not part of the traditional GOP playbook, though such issues are increasingly being raised by prominent Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Kashkari’s campaign ploys mark a return to methods he used to prepare for his gubernatorial run: He met with people around the state, slept in an Oakland shelter and picked strawberries with Salinas farmworkers.

But when he ran against Donnelly in the primary, Kashkari spent his time courting GOP voters, routinely describing himself as a “conservative Republican” and vowing to “get able-bodied people off welfare, food stamps and unemployment.” He called President Barack Obama a “partisan warrior” who put his party above the nation’s interest.

At the Living Gospel Church recently, that rhetoric was gone. Kashkari didn’t mention his GOP affiliation, compared his and the president’s life stories favorably and repeatedly noted that as a U.S. Treasury official he worked for Obama as well as for Bush.

“There is no other country in the world where a brown kid like me, the son of immigrants, gets to go to Washington and work for two presidents,” said Kashkari, who is of Indian descent.

“You know what President Obama and I have in common?” he continued. “We both got that good education, and that good education opened the doors. And if you get that good education, nothing can stop you.”

Shelton, the church administrator, said he was “incredibly impressed” by the candidate’s appearance and that he did not understand why Republicans tended to ignore African American neighborhoods.

“A lot of religious beliefs we have are congruent with their beliefs,” said the 48-year-old Chino resident.

Most of the congregation’s members are registered Democrats, but “they don’t care about party affiliation as much as they do about message,” Shelton added.

Although political analysts say the 41-year-old Kashkari cannot beat the 76-year-old Brown in November, he could improve his stature in a state where the GOP has a shallow bench of future leaders — particularly if he does better among minority voters than previous GOP candidates.

“He’s a political pioneer, but most political pioneers lose, and he will lose,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But that’s where the Republican party has to go, whether they want to or not.”

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