Picture Neel Kashkari striding to home plate late in the game, shouldering his bat and pointing confidently at the outfield lights.

California's Republican candidate for governor, who is taking on Jerry Brown in the Democrat's bid to win an unprecedented fourth term, must swing for the fences in Thursday night's first -- and probably only -- debate if he has any chance of closing the incumbent's big lead, state political experts say.

A new Field Poll finds Brown leads Kashkari by 16 points among likely voters. With less than nine weeks to go before Election Day, and less than five before voting by mail begins, Kashkari, 41, still suffers from low recognition: Four in 10 voters still have no opinion of him, while more than 90 percent have an opinion of Brown, 76, who has been part of California's political scene for five decades.

"Kashkari needs to make a lot of news and a lot of noise and hope for lots and lots of zingers and ... he really needs to pray for an error by Jerry Brown" -- something that will be repeated on the nightly news or in campaign ads, said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political-science professor.

"Anything other than a debacle for Jerry Brown is a victory for Jerry Brown," Kousser said.

Mark DiCamillo, the Field Poll's director, agreed that the debate will be "more about Brown's performance."

"Because Kashkari is not very well-known, most voters are making a yes/no vote on Brown, and he's pretty well-positioned for that," DiCamillo said.


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Brown's approval rating is at 58 percent, according to the Field Poll, which surveyed 467 likely voters Aug. 14 through Aug. 28. That's just a point off Brown's record during his third term (set in April). The poll's overall margin of error is plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.

Kashkari, a 41-year-old asset manager from Laguna Beach and former U.S. Treasury Department official, had proposed 10 head-to-head events: one debate and one town hall in each of five regions of the state. That's a standard play for a challenger, especially one with a lot less money than the incumbent: Sharing a stage makes them look like equals -- and each meeting is another chance to goad the incumbent into a gaffe.

But Brown has agreed to give Kashkari just one bite at the apple.

"The most important thing is first to establish that you are gubernatorial material, which means you have to show some mastery of the issues," said Edmond Costantini, a UC Davis professor emeritus and political expert. "But how do you do that, how do you make a splash, except by saying something outrageous?"

Don't expect Kashkari to pull some new rabbit from the hat, Kousser said. Instead, he will probably will take more potshots at Brown's support of high-speed rail, which he calls Brown's "crazy train," while pressing his case that California is headed in the wrong direction with Brown at the wheel.

"He's been making this point at Rotary lunches and poorly attended events all across the state," Kousser said. "It's not that he's doing a bad job; it's that nobody's paying attention to the job he's doing. And this is his chance to speak directly to the state's voters."

Kashkari launched a new Web video Wednesday claiming Brown is in the California Teachers Association's pocket and puts the union's needs ahead of California students, perhaps presaging an avenue of attack in the debate.

Yet if Kashkari hopes to maintain viability for future elections -- perhaps 2018, when Brown would be term-limited out -- he might pull his punches, Kousser said. "If he's looking ahead and playing a long-term strategy, he doesn't need to be throwing grenades at a popular governor this year."

Even in California's closest races for governor in recent decades -- Pete Wilson over Dianne Feinstein in 1990, and George Deukmejian over Tom Bradley in 1982 -- the debates were largely unremarkable and didn't noticeably alter the contests' courses.

Brown had $22.4 million banked for the campaign as of June 30, and has raised at least $387,000 in large donations since then. Kashkari had about $198,000 banked at midyear, and has raised at least $692,000 in large donations since.

Kashkari has tried to make up for his low budget by finding creative, cost-free ways to get his name out: lots of talk-radio guest-host gigs, and a well-publicized week spent "undercover" as a homeless person looking for a job in Fresno.

The Field Poll found that Brown leads solidly among voter blocs -- by 32 points among those who identify themselves as ideologically middle-of-the-road; by 18 points among independent voters; and by 19 points among permanent vote-by-mail registrants. In no region does Brown have a more solid lead than in the Bay Area, where 77 percent of likely voters favor him compared with 14 percent who favor Kashkari.

Both campaigns see silver linings in the poll.

"Even though every voter knows Jerry Brown, only half want to re-elect him -- that's not a strong position for an incumbent" in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 15 percentage points, said Kashkari spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner.

But Dan Newman, Brown's campaign spokesman, said the numbers show "the governor said what he'd do and did what he said -- he stabilized the budget so we can create jobs and improve schools. That's what voters wanted -- and that's what he's done."

The Field Poll found that 16 percent of likely voters haven't yet decided whom they will vote for. They include Tyler Rodgers, 31, of San Jose. The independent voter said Wednesday he's looking for a charismatic, fiscally responsible candidate to stand out in the debate.

But many other poll participants don't expect the debate to turn the tide.

There's little Kashkari can do in such a deeply blue state, said William Hitt, a 71-year-old retired firefighter who lives in Antioch. Still, the Republican plans to vote for him and hopes to see him force Brown to defend California's welfare spending.

"It's like going into a loaded dice game," Hitt said of Kashkari's chances of winning the debate. "California has gone so far left it may never return."

Democrat Bbora Park Nguyen, 33, a San Jose resident who works for a nonprofit, supports Brown and expects him to win the debate by focusing on his "get things done" record. Kashkari is too young and inexperienced to run so complex a state, she said.

"I remember the Schwarzenegger years when we weren't able to get the Legislature to do anything," she said. "Brown has taken a strong leadership role. It's very refreshing to see someone in office who is able to make things happen without angering one side or the other."

Follow Josh Richman at Twitter.com/josh_richman and Jessica Calefati at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

the brown-kashkari debate
The one-hour debate starts at 7 p.m. Thursday.
KQED Public Television (Channel 9) and Telemundo stations in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno and Sacramento will televise it live and provide a simultaneous Spanish-language translation. The California Channel will also broadcast the debate live to more than 5 million homes across the state.
KQED Public Radio will broadcast the debate live on its stations in San Francisco (88.5 FM) and Sacramento (89.3 FM) and will distribute the debate live for broadcast to 30 public radio stations across California via its statewide news service, the California Report.
KQEDnews.org, Telemundo52.com and CalChannel.com will offer a live video Web stream.