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By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times

After months of struggling to disrupt California Gov. Jerry Brown’s widely presumed glide to re-election, Republican Neel Kashkari will have a chance to shift the dynamics of the lopsided contest Thursday in the candidates’ first and only debate.

The televised one-hour encounter in Sacramento gives the novice Laguna Beach candidate an opportunity to introduce himself to millions who know little or nothing about him and to challenge Brown’s portrayal of a California on the rebound.

“He needs a major win, a major headline or a major Brown faux-pas, or something that would attract voter attention to the race that isn’t there right now,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “He needs to introduce some new element that voters haven’t thought of in evaluating Brown.”

With polls showing the Democratic incumbent running about 20 points ahead, Brown has all but ignored Kashkari, a former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary who oversaw the federal bank bailout. Kashkari, 41, also is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who once was an aerospace engineer.

Brown, 76, who was first elected governor 40 years ago, is seeking an unprecedented fourth term to cap a tortuous career that included stints as California secretary of state, state Democratic chairman, Oakland mayor and state attorney general, along with three unsuccessful runs for president and one for U.S. Senate.

Kashkari, who has raised too little money for extensive TV advertising, demanded as many as 10 debates, but Brown agreed to just one, according to his campaign spokesman, Dan Newman.

It will take place in a TV studio near the state Capitol. The sponsors are the Los Angeles Times, KQED public radio and television, Telemundo, and the California Channel.

The debate will be carried live at 7 p.m. PDT on C-SPAN, 30 NPR radio affiliates across the state, major PBS television stations, the California Channel, and in Spanish on Telemundo stations.

The moderator will be John Myers, KQED’s state politics and government editor. The other journalists on the panel are Jim Newton, editor-at-large of the Times, and Dunia Elvir, morning news anchor of Telemundo’s KVEA-52 in Los Angeles.

Aides to the candidates declined to discuss debate preparations and hewed to the custom of trying to lower expectations.

“The fact of the matter is the governor’s been debating since before Neel was born, and this is Neel’s first debate,” Kashkari campaign manager Pat Melton said.

Kashkari, he said, is likely to argue that rampant poverty and unemployment, along with substandard public schools, belie Brown’s narrative of a California comeback.

“California is not back, and it’s time for real leadership,” Melton said.

Newman called Kashkari “a nattering nabob of negativism” who favors stunts over substance. The governor, a onetime Jesuit seminarian prone to occasional bursts of Latin, might debate in iambic pentameter, he joked.

“It can be challenging to talk in short sound bites when you know as much as he knows,” Newman said.

With just more than a month left until voting by mail begins, Kashkari has little time to shift public opinion. A Public Policy Institute of California poll in July found 52 percent of likely voters favoring Brown’s re-election and 33 percent backing Kashkari.

Brown was supported by 80 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents, along with 18 percent of Republicans. In a state where just 28 percent of voters are Republican, those numbers reflect a fierce headwind for Kashkari. Nearly a third of Republicans approved of Brown’s job performance, the poll found.

Most daunting for Kashkari is his inability to communicate directly with voters through TV ads. The campaigns’ most recent filings with the state showed Brown with $22.4 million on hand at the end of June, while Kashkari — who unlike Brown had to wage a competitive primary campaign — had just $198,000.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Sarah Cooper

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