In California’s race for governor, Chris Christie stands with Neel Kashkari to say he has a chance

By this time four years ago, the Republican nominee for governor was moving to reshape her message for the general election and a Democratic-leaning electorate.

After the primary, Meg Whitman shifted from her hard line on immigration and began courting Latinos on Spanish-language TV.

For Neel Kashkari, who is already an unusually moderate Republican, the post-primary calculation is at once less nuanced and more challenging. In his first major campaign appearance since advancing from last week’s primary election, Kashkari stood with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Friday as they argued jointly that Kashkari even has a chance.

“No one thought I was going to win in 2009,” Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, told reporters at a flower store in San Francisco. “I’m out here to support Neel to let him know it can happen, but what you have to do is reach out to everybody.”

Christie has been a source of hope to California Republicans since 2009, when he overcame a Democratic voter registration advantage in his state to win election. In appearing beside Christie, a potential presidential candidate, Kashkari is “trying to create credibility for the candidacy,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

“It’s a tall order,” he said.

Even in announcing his support for Kashkari, Christie acknowledged how difficult it will be for a Republican to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown, stopping short of committing any of the money the governors association will pour into competitive gubernatorial races this year.

The association gave $2 million to the California Republican Party in 2010, and it spent $1 million on ads opposing then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante in the recall election in 2003.

“What the RGA can do is when we have a close race we can be the folks who help to push that person over the finish line,” Christie said. “He’s got work to do. He knows he’s got work to do. He didn’t just wake up this morning, OK? He knows how difficult this race is. But I believe he’s going to do the work, and when he does do the work you’re going to see not only the RGA but lots of Republicans across the country, when they see an opportunity to win here in California, are going to be really rushing here to try to make that statement.”

While eclipsing Republican rival Tim Donnelly in the primary election, Kashkari was beaten by Brown by about 35 percentage points. The third-term Democrat holds a massive fundraising advantage and unlike Jon Corzine, Christie’s deeply unpopular opponent in 2009, Brown enjoys a high public approval rating.

Dan Newman, a political spokesman for the governor, noted in an email that Christie “didn’t run against Jerry Brown,” and even many of Kashkari’s boosters are keeping their expectations low.

“I would say he’s got a good chance to get 45 percent of the vote,” said Benson Cooper, 67, one of about 50 supporters who cheered Kashkari at the flower store.

It all amounts to an unusually modest beginning to the summer-long gubernatorial campaign. Four years ago, Whitman was already running TV ads by now, and four years before that, the last time an incumbent California governor stood for re-election, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, were attacking each other on TV and in public appearances around the state.

Brown has done almost no public campaigning, while Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. Treasury Department official, spoke to a group of Republicans in San Diego and has done a spate of radio and TV interviews in recent days. It is unclear how much paid advertising he will have on the air.

Kashkari said on CNBC last week that the election is “going to cost a lot.”

“We’re going to have to raise tens of millions of dollars, would be my guess, to really compete with Jerry Brown,” he said.

Kashkari struggled to raise money in the primary election, relying on $2 million of his own money to pull ahead in the final weeks of the campaign. Not only will he have to raise more money in the general election, but he will have to appeal to many conservative Republicans who voted for Donnelly, a tea party favorite. Kashkari was criticized by conservatives for his vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and for his support for same-sex marriage, abortion rights and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

In the general election, said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, “he’s got to get Republican voters and the Republican donors somewhat interested in this race.”

Kashkari said he looks to “different governors all around the country to say, ‘What can I learn from them that we can bring to California?’ ” Of Christie’s victory in a Democratic-leaning state, Kashkari said, “Boy, I take inspiration from that.”

But there can be liabilities to joint promotional appearances. Christie faces ongoing scandal over bridge lane closings in his home state, and both Christie and Kashkari faced questions Friday about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s recent remarks comparing homosexuality to alcoholism.

Christie said the comparison is “wrong.” Kashkari, who posted a photograph on Twitter on Sunday of a meeting with Perry days before he made his comments, said he also disagreed with the Texas governor.

“I’m looking to him for his economic policies,” Kashkari said. “I disagree with him on his comments about sexual orientation.”

Christie left the flower store for governors association fundraisers in San Francisco, then planned to travel to Park City, Utah, to attend another fundraiser and a gathering hosted by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.

The bombastic Christie avoided any of the headlines he made when he campaigned for Whitman in California in 2010. That year, he walked over to a heckler at a forum and scolded him: “It’s people who raise their voices and yell and scream like you that are dividing this country. We’re here to bring this country together.”

On Friday, Christie may have been recovering from his theatrics the previous night, when he appeared on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” dancing with host Jimmy Fallon in a tribute to Father’s Day.

Asked if he could re-create the dance he did, Christie said that if he started to dance, Kashkari would feel compelled to as well.

“You’ve got to get elected first before you can do that kind of dancing,” he said. “Believe me.”