Ron Nehring was in Walnut Creek on Thursday afternoon. That was after Sacramento but before Santa Rosa, and quite a while since his campaign had wandered through Southern California and the Central Valley.

You put in long hours and lots of miles when you run for statewide office, even the most invisible office in California. That would be lieutenant governor, whose biggest job is to warm the governor's chair when he's out of state.

Some might regard Nehring's pursuit as a foolhardy expenditure of time and energy that could only make less sense if he were a Republican challenging an incumbent in a heavily Democratic state -- which, of course, he is.

No one understands the challenge better than the man himself. Nehring was the state Republican chairman from 2007-2011, has worked as a political consultant since and can unhappily cite the wide disparity in statewide voter registration.

"It's about 43 percent Democrats and 29 percent Republicans -- we've been at a registration disadvantage since 1934," he said. "But we were at a disadvantage when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor, and we were at a disadvantage when Pete Wilson was elected, too."

No one will mistake this clash for anything so high profile. Even Gavin Newsom, who holds the position, once suggested it could be eliminated. Only one occupant in the past 80 years -- Gray Davis (ugh!) -- used it as a springboard to the governor's mansion. But does the job have to be inconsequential?

"I think the office is what the holder makes of it," Nehring said. "You can wake up, see the governor's in good health and decide to sit around all day. Or you can say, 'I'm the No. 2 elected official in the state, which means I have a platform and the ability to bring people together to find long-term solutions to issues.'"

He can rattle off the issues, all right, and they have a familiar ring: education reform, pension reform, tax reform, legal reform. He wants smarter kids, contained costs, flourishing businesses and no frivolous lawsuits. That's a pretty ambitious to-do list for an officeholder whose main duties recently have been chairing the defunct state Economic Commission and watching senators cast votes.

Nehring says he'd gather smart, bipartisan political minds to chart long-term solutions he can sell to lawmakers. This bold idea might make sense if legislators ever put solutions ahead of partisanship or if the governor ever listened to his lieutenant. But, hey, you have to like the optimism.

The would-be lieutenant governor said he owes his love of politics to his parents, German immigrants who treasured American freedom after escaping Nazi Germany. Nehring said they became U.S. citizens in 1967, never missed a chance to vote, and his dad always wore a tie to the polling place out of respect for the process.

So now the son honors his father by earning a spot on a ballot -- even if it's as a big underdog facing a seasoned incumbent.

"In 1991," Nehring said, "everyone was certain George H.W. Bush was going to be elected to a second term. In 2007, we were all certain Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic candidate for president. We're all certain of this and certain of that, but sometimes the certain thing doesn't happen. Politics is dynamic."

That's the hope that's kept him motoring up and down the state.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com