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Jerry Brown heads into gubernatorial debate with large lead over Neel Kashkari

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As Gov. Jerry Brown and Neel Kashkari prepare for their first – and likely only – debate Thursday, Kashkari has a problem that goes beyond anything that might happen on stage: Many Californians still don’t know who he is.

Two months before Election Day, less than 60 percent of likely voters have an opinion of Kashkari, according to a new Field Poll, and the Republican trails Brown by 16 percentage points.

The margin, while smaller than the 20 percentage point difference registered in June, is sizable, reflecting Kashkari’s lack of funding and name recognition and Brown’s popularity in a liberal-leaning state. The third-term Democrat’s job approval rating stands at 58 percent, according to the poll.

Not only is Brown favored in the election by more than 80 percent of Democrats, he is supported by pluralities of independent and middle-of-the-road voters, according to the poll.

“Brown (is) in a really strong position among most of the key subgroups,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll.

For Kashkari, DiCamillo said the poll is “just reflecting reality – he hasn’t had a lot of money to spend to introduce himself to the broader public, and that’s been a disadvantage. He needs, basically, to get better known.”

The poll comes the morning of a one-hour debate in Sacramento between Brown, the third-term Democrat, and Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official.

While debates typically feature prominently in gubernatorial campaigns, the opportunity for exposure has taken on heightened significance for Kashkari. Without enough money for a heavy run of TV ads, he has scrounged for free publicity in unusual ways, including filming himself posing as a homeless man in Fresno, hosting talk radio shows and creating a scholarship competition for college students who make ads for his campaign.

Now, for an hour on screen Thursday , Kashkari will share equal footing with Brown.

“Debates are the most important moments in campaigns, of course,” said Tom Hollihan, a professor of communications at University of Southern California. “They’re the moment when the public is invited to sort of pay attention to the candidates, and they see them on the same platform, so they’re able to see them in direct comparison to each other.”

It was unclear as recently as last month if Brown would debate Kashkari at all. Kashkari, echoing a call Brown made four years ago in his race against Meg Whitman, called for 10 debates and accepted several invitations. When Brown’s campaign announced the governor would debate Thursday, it declined other invitations and said the debate would be the only one Brown participates in.

The debate comes unusually early in the election season, before many voters are paying attention to the race. It also coincides with the first nationally televised game of the regular NFL season.

Hollihan said, “I don’t anticipate this debate’s going to attract a big viewership or frankly that it’s likely to have much of an impact on the election, absent some incredible gaffe.”

Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, has been debating political opponents for decades, and the contest Thursday could be the last of his career. Far ahead in this campaign, there is little motivation for Brown to be provocative, and if he approaches the debate in a “pure textbook” fashion, said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist, he would “play it very safe.”

However, Sragow said, “We are dealing, after all, with the one and only Jerry Brown.” The governor is “sometimes a little unpredictable” and can exhibit a “rather wicked sense of humor,” Sragow said.

“You don’t take risks,” he said. “But on the other hand you don’t get so uptight that you’re not yourself.”

Kashkari, meanwhile, will be trying to make news all night. Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist, said he expects Kashkari to “keep up a good, steady attack” on Brown.

“It will be interesting to see if, at some point, he gets under the governor’s skin,” Stutzman said.

Kashkari is expected to criticize Brown for his support of California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project, and to press him on an emerging controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Superior Court ruling in June that California’s teacher dismissal rules are unconstitutional.

When Brown announced in a court filing last week that he was appealing the case, Kashkari lit up on Twitter, saying he was “beside myself with anger” and accusing Brown of choosing “to fight for union bosses rather than the civil rights of poor kids.”

On Wednesday, Kashkari released a lengthy online video attacking Brown for his appeal of the case and ties to the California Teachers Association.

In his ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said California’s rules for teacher tenure and dismissal keep inferior teachers in classrooms and deprive students of their constitutional right to a quality education.

The judge wrote in the case, Vergara v. California, that there is “no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently in California classrooms.”

Brown’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. In a legal filing, lawyers for the state complained the court declined to detail the legal basis for its ruling and that “changes of this magnitude, as a matter of law and policy, require appellate review.”

While Brown’s support among likely voters notched down to 50 percent from 52 percent in June, his advantage over Kashkari is widespread. Brown leads Kashkari among men and women and people of all ages and ethnicities, according to the poll.

“I like the direction we’re going in right now,” said William Baker, 34, a poll respondent and short-order cook from Chico. “He’s trying to be fiscally responsible but still not pull too much money out of the system, either … If you take too much out of the economy, then it won’t keep running.”

Baker, an independent voter, said he didn’t know Brown and Kashkari were debating but that he might watch it if he doesn’t have to work.

The California Channel, one of the producers of the debate, will air the event and is offering a satellite feed to television stations around the state.

John Schmidt, a retired auto parts distributor from Bakersfield, said he is frustrated with California’s regulatory and tax climate and will vote for Kashkari. But the 58-year-old Republican is frustrated with his party’s prospects in California, and he doubted a debate would change that.

“I’ll be honest with you, it’s almost a waste of time to be a Republican in California at this point,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what (Kashkari) says or what he does ... He’s not going to get the numbers to beat (Brown), it’s just not going to happen.”

But Schmidt added, “I’ll probably flip through and hopefully see some highlights.”