Los Angeles mayoral candidate Kevin James wasn't supposed to get this far.
Seven years ago, the AM radio talk show host's audience consisted largely of right-wing night owls.
Last week, James, a Republican, was standing onstage at a high-profile KNBC (Channel 4) televised debate at UCLA, pitching himself alongside politicians who've served in office for decades.
"We can't solve the city's many problems with the same people who caused them," James told the audience, repeating a line about the rival candidates he's used throughout his campaign.
Once pegged as a long shot, James is now viewed as a credible outsider candidate, helped by his blunt criticisms of Los Angeles city government and promises of fiscal conservatism.
Republican Party chapters, seeking to regroup amid their shrinking number of registered voters, are lining up behind him. Some Democrats, fed up with the perceived power of unions at City Hall, are shrugging off James' former Tea Party affiliations to support him over insiders City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry.
But James, 49, faces numerous hurdles. He is quickly running out of money. His retreat from more conservative views - and toward more center reformist positions - has drawn both praise and criticism.
With the March 5 primary quickly approaching, the question remains whether James can snag one of two spots in the runoff - or whether his campaign will join L.A. Clean Sweep and Occupy L.A. in the dustbin of failed City Hall takeover attempts.
"Basically, the issue is just getting the word out," said Mark Vafiades, chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. "People know who Wendy Greuel is. We have to let people know who Kevin is, what he is for, and why he is running."
To that end, James has been on the road, hitting Republican-heavy areas to raise money. He has roughly $48,000 cash on hand, far less than his competitors. There were two recent trips to Orange County, to see the Orange County Business Council and the Orange County Lincoln Club.
A few days later, James swung through South Pasadena, speaking to South Pasadena Republican Women Federated in a private room at The Colonial Kitchen restaurant in San Marino.
For nearly half an hour, James critiqued City Hall, slamming the nearly $200,000 annual salaries earned by council members, before moving on to the city's fiscal crisis, and promising to reform the city's gross receipts tax and eliminate the red tape that he believes makes L.A. hostile to business.
He's running for mayor, he told the group, to bring serious fiscal reforms to City Hall and clear out what he defined as years of corruption.
While many of the women likely lived outside L.A. boundaries, James reminded them they could still donate or volunteer with his campaign. "A healthy Los Angeles is also a healthy Pasadena," James said.
In an interview earlier at his Sherman Oaks headquarters, James outlined his rise in L.A politics, an ascent helped by the media spotlight.
Born in Oklahoma, James attended the University of Oklahoma, where he studied accounting, and later earned a law degree from the University of Houston. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987, eventually working in the U.S. Attorney's Office, and later for a private firm.
James' first foray with the media came when he represented Jennifer Aniston when she sued a photographer for invasion of privacy for taking photos of her topless on her property.
Ultimately, James landed at KABC, hosting "Red Eye Radio" and earning a reputation as a brash radio host. While socially liberal - James is gay, and supports gay marriage, for instance - radio allowed him to air his conservative views. He expounded on the "illegal alien crisis," blaming undocumented immigrants for the majority of Los Angeles' problems.
Today, he's "evolved" from those more conservative views, James said.
John Shallman, Greuel's consultant in the race, doesn't believe James has dropped his right-wing views. "He's a shock jock radio host," Shallman said. `He's auditioning to be the next Rush Limbaugh."
Throughout the race, James and Greuel have clashed. Both are vying for San Fernando Valley votes. James launched his headquarters in the Valley, specifically to target Greuel, and to cut into the conservative base she's courting. He holds more house parties and fundraisers in the Valley than other areas of the city, said James' spokesman Jeff Corless.
Focusing on the Valley hasn't always translated to Valley money. According to City Ethics Commission filings, roughly $42,000 or about 12 percent of his contributions - which total $336,0000 - have come from the San Fernando Valley. (One of his contributors was Los Angeles News Group Publisher Jack Klunder, who lives outside of the city of L.A., and who donated $750 to the James campaign.)
More funds have been raised since that January filing deadline, according to Corless, who said 18 percent of James' money now comes from the Valley.
Helping buttress his campaign, however, is Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who is funding a super PAC in support of James called Better Way L.A.
A pro-James ad, portraying Greuel, Garcetti and Perry as "foxes" guarding the henhouse of City Hall is scheduled to debut on television in late February, according to sources.
The reach of that advertising campaign remains to be seen. Other City Hall reform efforts, like L.A. Clean Sweep, led by former Daily News editor Ron Kaye, and backed by James, failed to find a groundswell of support.
With the exception of Tea Party activists and Occupiers, L.A. voters aren't enraged, just restless and seeking leadership, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
"They're not as depressed as they were in the recession, but they have a sense that there is more that could be done," Schnur said. "And they're waiting for someone to tell them what that is."
Supporters believe James is that leader, even in Democratic-heavy Los Angeles.
"It's not about him being a Republican," said Gary Aminoff, founder of the San Fernando Valley Republican Club. "It's about him being a reformer."
"James wasn't part of the City Hall crowd that brought us to this point," Aminoff added. "He has great ideas to fix the city. He just needs more exposure."