Lone debate in governor's race provides biggest stage for Brown's GOP challenger, Kashkari

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SACRAMENTO, California — Gov. Jerry Brown doesn't have much on the line as he faces his Republican challenger in the only gubernatorial debate scheduled so far this election season.

The Democratic incumbent, trying for an unprecedented fourth term, is strongly favored to win and has nearly $23 million in the bank from donors who span the political spectrum.

But the fact that Thursday night's debate is happening at all is something of a win for Republican Neel Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs banker who has struggled for attention this year. Kashkari will have his largest audience yet to push his campaign message that the state's economic recovery has been uneven.

Appearing side-by-side with the popular Democratic governor on a Sacramento stage Thursday night gives Kashkari his first real opportunity to demonstrate his credibility as a challenger.

"For Kashkari, he is the one in the position to benefit the most," said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. "He did have a campaign ad during the primary season and clearly the newspapers have been talking about him. But most Californians won't really know who he is.

"It may be the first time they start to take a serious look at him."

The hourlong debate starts at 7 p.m. Thursday and will be held in the studios of The California Channel, across the street from the Capitol. Other sponsors are KQED, the Los Angeles Times and Telemundo52.

This year's relatively quiet gubernatorial contest is a sharp contrast with the race for governor four years ago, when Brown sought a comeback to the office he first held from 1975 to 1983 and faced a relentless advertising barrage from former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman.

Whitman, the 2010 Republican nominee, spent $178.5 million, about $144 million of it from her personal fortune, while Brown's campaign spent $36.5 million in his successful bid.

This year, Brown's campaign spent just $270,000 in June's top-two primary, while Kashkari spent $4.4 million to defeat third-place finisher Tim Donnelly, a Republican state assemblyman and favorite of the tea party.

Echoing Brown's challenge to Whitman from four years ago, Kashkari had requested 10 debates around the state this election season but is settling for one. Brown and Whitman sparred in three debates in 2010, all of which had sizeable audiences.

The topics that come up Thursday are likely to touch on Kashkari's claims about the state's uneven economic recovery. To illustrate his point, Kashkari rode a bus to Fresno this summer and posed as a homeless man looking for work.

The revelation Wednesday that electric carmaker Tesla, a California-born company, would locate its battery-production plant in northern Nevada rather than in California could help boost Kashkari's argument that the state has an unfriendly business climate that leads to an exodus of middle-class jobs. Tesla says the plant will create 6,500 jobs, and Brown's administration had been lobbying heavily for it to be built in California.

Kashkari is also critical of Brown's decision to appeal a ruling by a Los Angeles County judge who found that California's teacher-tenure laws unfairly harm poor and minority children. In an eight-minute video he released Wednesday, Kashkari criticized Brown for protecting the powerful California Teachers Association union at the expense of students.

Brown's continuing support for the $68 billion high-speed rail project is another line of attack for Kashkari, who calls it the "crazy train."

While Kashkari has spent most of this year traveling the state meeting with small groups, releasing policy positions and updating his followers on Twitter, Brown has mostly focused on governing.

Unlike four years ago, when he barnstormed through the Central Valley during Labor Day weekend, Brown spent this weekend reviewing the hundreds of bills sent to him by the state Legislature in the final weeks of its session. His campaign spokesman, Dan Newman, declined to say where the governor spent Labor Day.

"Four years ago, he didn't have a pile of bills to decide whether they had to become law," Newman said of Brown's decidedly more private schedule this year.

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