With less than three weeks until California's June 3 primary election, two GOP candidates are locked in a fight to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who is making a pitch for an unprecedented fourth term as the chief executive of America's most populous state.
The race pits former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari against Tim Donnelly, a tea party-aligned member of the California state Assembly.
The moderate Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who in the Bush administration helped lead the federal bank bailout, admits neither Republican candidate is well known among voters.
"I don't see other Republicans, a talented bench of Republicans, running to Sacramento to change the state," Kashkari told NBC4's Conan Nolan during an interview on NewsConference. "If a guy like me, young, energetic, experienced in government, if I'm not willing to fight to turn the state around, who's going to do it?"
Kashkari, 40, has leveled a series of pointed attacks on Donnelly, 48, who is best known for his opposition to gun control and any softening of immigration laws. During their first and possibly only joint appearance, Kashkari said Donnelly had denigrated Hispanics, blacks and Jews, and suggested Donnelly couldn't beat the Democratic governor after alienating a broad swath of state voters.
Donnelly, who has held an edge over Kashkari in voter polls, dismissed the criticism as the desperation of a struggling candidate.
"They only attack you when you are the front-runner," Donnelly said. "The only colors that matter to me are red, white and blue, because those are the colors of freedom."
The conservative legislator, who has a history of controversial remarks, was recently scolded by some leading Republicans after he began trying to link Kashkari, who is Indian-American and Hindu, to Islamic Sharia law. Donnelly has said he was only "asking questions" about his opponent.
Kashkari has personally contributed $2 million to his campaign, bringing his total to $2.7 million since mid-March.
By contrast, Donnelly's campaign has brought in just $165,000 since reporting $150,000 in debts in mid-March.
Polls in April showed Kashkari trailing Donnelly.
But with Brown holding a commanding edge over both could-be rivals in polls and fundraising so far, state Republican leaders have said they are unlikely to invest time or money in the race.
Kashkari said he hopes that voters will turn out at polls despite the dwindling numbers of registered Republicans.
"Every year the number of Republicans in California shrinks - we're down to 28 percent," Kashkari said. "If we don't grow our party, we're never going to win another election, and that's why I'm trying to reach out to every group imaginable and say, 'We want you with us. If you want to work hard, if you just want a fair chance at a better life, we're the party for you.'"
Under California's election rules, all the candidates appear on a single primary ballot, regardless of party, and the top two finishers then advance to the November general election. With Brown appearing well ahead of the field, the fight is for second place on June 3.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Tim Donnelly.