SAN FRANCISCO -- Neel Kashkari and Gov. Jerry Brown have at least one thing in common: Neither will say yet that he's a candidate for governor, despite myriad signs.
As the Democratic Brown amassed a huge war chest and opened a new campaign office in Oakland this past year, the Republican Kashkari quit his job as an investment banking executive to crisscross the state to meet with GOP groups, potential donors, community organizations and ordinary Californians.
But coy as he's playing it, Kashkari, a 40-year-old Indo-American whose party's members are mostly older and white, could be the sort of new face that the California Republican Party needs as it tries to dig itself out of the electoral cellar.
Kashkari is a fiscal conservative, but supports abortion rights, pro-gay marriage and is a gun owner who says he doesn't object to background checks for all firearm purchases -- stances that might have sunk him in a traditional GOP primary. Yet thanks to the state's new top-two primary system, he won't have to toss red meat to the right-wing Republican base and take positions that damage him in a general election in which a growing number of independent voters usually pick the winner.
Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a fellow moderate, dropped out of the race Thursday., and the only other GOP candidate is Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, who is best known for being an anti-illegal-immigrant activist and staunch gun-rights defender.
"We can make big changes in California," Kashkari said during a recent interview -- a candidate's line if there ever was one, though he insists he won't announce his decision until later this month.
But with a team of veteran campaign consultants and political advisers already in place, the writing is on the wall. More mysterious is why he would put a lucrative career on hold and spend so much time away from his steps-from-the-beach Orange County home to challenge a popular Democratic incumbent in an increasingly blue state.
As an assistant U.S. treasury secretary, he ran the Treasury Department's controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program -- better known as TARP -- to bail out the nation's free-falling financial sector in 2008 and 2009.
Proud that Congress worked across partisan lines to enact and maintain TARP, he says the program not only saved the banks but even made a $13.6 billion profit for taxpayers.
"If we had listened to the naysayers in Washington, we would be in the Great Depression," Kashkari said.
He claims that Brown hasn't adequately tackled California's biggest problems: the nation's highest poverty rate, the fifth-highest unemployment rate, and schools that rank toward the bottom.
"The narrative that 'California is back' is outrageous,'' he said. "The people on the street definitely know better."
He likened Brown to a teenager who shovels the state's mess under the bed to make the room look clean.
Sure, he said, the budget looks better, but what of all the struggling students and residents, or the enormous public pension liabilities? It's like being proud of balancing your checkbook when you still can't pay the mortgage, he said.
Dan Newman, Brown's political spokesman, replied that the governor's actions have let the state start creating jobs and improving schools again, while Kashkari must have "a very healthy ego for someone with his thin resume to decide he should be governor."
"He's a Goldman Sachs banker whose one public policy act was handing $700 billion to Wall Street banks," Newman said, adding that wealthy bankers "often have an irrepressible need to try to buy their way into politics. We've seen this movie before in California, and it doesn't end well for Republicans."
Kashkari has never held elected office but isn't quite ripping a page from the playbooks of wealthy California candidates such as Al Checchi, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. He said he can't afford to self-fund his campaign, and his California "listening tour" included picking strawberries with migrant workers in Salinas and sleeping overnight in an Oakland homeless shelter -- not the usual GOP whistle-stops.
Brown in November enjoyed a 55 percent job-approval rating, his highest since taking office in 2011, according to a USC/Los Angeles Times poll. Yet more respondents said they believed the state was on the wrong track than said it was headed in the right direction. And only 32 percent of voters were inclined to re-elect Brown, while 37 percent said they would elect someone else.
Kashkari sees opportunity there. But Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State, said Brown looks "very hard to beat."
"When there are really no viable candidates against Jerry Brown, it can be easy to say 'I won't re-elect him; I want the knight in shining armor,'" Boilard said. "But when you plug in a real human being, the numbers toward Jerry might go up."
Not that he doesn't consider Maldonado or Donnelly to be "real human beings." They're just not "viable candidates," he said.
Maldonado dropped out because he, like Donnelly, couldn't raise enough money -- perhaps because deep-pocketed GOP donors have kept their powder dry to see who else might enter the race. Kashkari hopes to benefit from their patience.
"If Republicans think strategically ... they would want to ensure that Jerry Brown is facing somebody who is more moderate and not an extreme right-wing ideologue" like Donnelly, Boilard said.
Chairman Jim Brulte is "trying to do all the right things" to resuscitate the state GOP, Kashkari said, calling himself the kind of candidate who can connect with voters the party hasn't won over in the past.
He also is nearly half Brown's age and has a background of bipartisanship, said San Jose State University political expert Larry Gerston.
Those facts aren't likely to sway hard-core liberals, Gerston noted.
"But the majority of the state is in the middle," he said. "And he clearly has an opportunity to register as an alternative to those folks in the middle."
Name: Neel Kashkari
Hometown: Stow, Ohio
Residence: Laguna Beach
Family: Divorced; no children
Professional experience: Managing director of global equities, Pacific Investment Management Co., 2009-2013; assistant U.S. treasury secretary, 2008-2009; senior adviser to the treasury secretary, 2006-08; vice president, Goldman Sachs, 2002-06
Elected offices: None
KashKari v. Brown on the issues
JOBS: Kashkari said California's biggest job creator will be its natural resources -- in particular fracking the Monterey Shale with adequate environmental protections. Brown has said much the same, but Kashkari said Brown "talks about both sides of every issue" and has embraced policies that don't have oil companies hiring.
SCHOOLS: Kashkari wants to cut K-12 education's administrative overhead so more money makes it into classrooms. He also likes the idea of year-round instruction, but says teachers, principals and parents must work out what's best for their own communities. Brown championed a local-control funding formula last year in part to give districts more flexibility.
HIGH-SPEED RAIL: Kashkari calls it "the biggest example we have of misplaced priorities in our state." He calls Brown's plan to divert carbon emission cap-and-trade revenue to the project a "gimmick," nothing more than a Band-Aid on an imaginary financial plan.