Trying to claw his way into contention before the June 3 primary, Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari on Monday unveiled his first television ad and donated $500,000 of his own money to his campaign.
Trailing badly in public-opinion polls against the more conservative GOP Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, Kashkari has ramped up his campaign in recent days, launching a website attacking Donnelly, sending glossy mailers to GOP households and rolling out endorsements from such prominent Republicans as 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Kashkari's moves come at a critical time for his campaign: As the first mail ballots are arriving at voters' homes, he remains virtually unknown among the electorate.
His effort has had all the hallmarks of a serious bid, but he has failed to gain a following.
"We've said all along that Neel is going to start advertising once people start paying attention, which is exactly what we're doing right now," said senior advisor Aaron McLear. "This is the right moment in the campaign to start our voter contact program."
The 30-second television ad shows a casually dressed Kashkari in the woods, chopping logs with an ax as he pledges to cut taxes, increase employment and eliminate wasteful spending. He singles out the high-speed rail plan backed by incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and smashes a tiny toy locomotive with the ax.
"Career politicians are clueless about earning a dollar. All they know is how to spend yours. I'm Neel Kashkari. I'm not a politician, so I actually understand hard work," Kashkari says, repeating a theme of the mailers he sent out last week.
Kashkari's campaign declined to specify how much it was spending on the television ads or mail efforts, or where they were aimed.
Donnelly, who is running an insurgent campaign on a shoestring budget, said the more voters find out about Kashkari, the less they like him, notably that he ran the taxpayer-funded bank bailout that is unpopular among voters across party lines.
Donnelly said the flurry of new activity reeked of desperation and that the Republicans rallying around Kashkari represented a circling of GOP establishment wagons in fear of the lawmaker's success.
"When you're in trouble, you attack your opponent," he said.
Kashkari's campaign has not evolved as the former U.S. Treasury official and investment banker planned when he entered the race in January, expecting to raise several million dollars.
He repeatedly said he would not spend any of his personal wealth, which he has pegged at less than $5 million. Any sum he could afford to put into his bid, he said, would not be enough to make a difference.
McLear said Kashkari changed his mind and decided a cash infusion could boost his prospects in June.
Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown, compared Kashkari to Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, neophyte Republican candidates in 2010 who spent many of their own millions on their unsuccessful campaigns.
"Déjà vu all over again," he said.
Though Kashkari had strong early fundraising, it tapered off. He has taken in about $1.7 million, a fraction of the money typically spent in a gubernatorial primary campaign.
Republican donors, perhaps fatigued by their contributions to losing campaigns since 2008 and dissuaded by incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's strong reelection prospects, have not provided meaningful financial support.
But Romney, former Gov. Pete Wilson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rep. Darrell Issa and an Orange County pro-business group — all of whom endorsed Kashkari last week — could still help him tap their donor networks.
"They constitute the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for his candidacy, so people … who haven't been paying attention might now send a check," said Jack Pitney, a former national GOP official and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
Those Republicans don't necessarily think Kashkari can beat Brown in November, Pitney said, but they fear the fallout if Donnelly carries their party's banner in the fall contest.
Donnelly has taken controversial positions, such as his lone vote in the Assembly on Monday to oppose a ban on the sale of confederate flags on state property.
The endorsements for Kashkari "reflect a belief he has a better chance of running a competitive race than Donnelly," Pitney said, "and Donnelly might not just lose but lose so badly that it hurts Republicans down the line."
Pitney and others said that while Donnelly has been the clear front-runner, with a small but fervent base of support, Kashkari could still close the gap before election day — exactly four weeks away.
"The donors better wake up," said GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, who was an advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Stutzman said he disliked the fact that Kashkari voted for President Obama in 2008 and that his chief resume credential is having run the taxpayer-funded bailout of Wall Street banks.
But if Donnelly wins a spot on the November ballot, Stutzman said, "I will open a [fundraising] committee for Republicans to support Brown.
"It's best for the future of this state," he continued, "and it's important that Californians see Republican repudiation of Donnelly as the nominee."
Times staff writer Melanie Mason in Sacramento contributed to this report.