It was Neel Kashkari's third gig as a talk radio guest host since he emerged from last month's primary as Gov. Jerry Brown's Republican challenger, and the pressure was on to walk the party line.
One caller asked if Kashkari had "the cojones to take on the unions." Another, Michael in Long Beach, wondered how he'd get Californians to give up food stamps and other "freebies from the government." A co-host pressed Kashkari on "illegal alien children" entering the country from Mexico.
For seven hours this week, Kashkari played up his partisan Republican credentials on Fresno and L.A. radio stations.
Yes, he assured listeners of KABC-AM 790 in Los Angeles on Wednesday, he will challenge organized labor, come what may — an approach that backfired for California's last Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Kashkari acknowledged.
"If people are going to be mad as heck over it, so be it," said Kashkari, who described unions as less "economically rational" than the mob.
At the same time, Kashkari was careful not to take his appeals to the party base too far, lest he offend some of the nearly 13 million California voters — 72% — who are not Republican.
KABC co-host John Phillips reminded Kashkari that one of his top Republican supporters, former Gov. Pete Wilson, had sued the federal government for reimbursement of state spending on public services for immigrants in the country illegally.
Kashkari, who is trying to gain support among the many Latinos who were offended by Wilson's hard line on illegal immigration, was noncommital.
"That's interesting," Kashkari said. "We would have to look at the legal implications of that."
The radio appearances were a boon to Kashkari, who is struggling to raise money to advertise and needs all the free media attention he can get. Brown has banked about $21 million for his reelection run, while Kashkari's campaign was close to broke after the June 3 primary. Since then, Kashkari has reported raising just over $53,000, while Brown has collected $453,000.
The radio shows gave Kashkari a chance to shore up party support after a hard-fought primary against a more conservative rival, Tim Donnelly. The most recent Field Poll found 71% of likely Republican voters backing Kashkari over Brown in November. Overall, Brown was 20 points ahead, so stronger GOP support is essential to Kashkari.
"He's trying to show Republicans that he is in fact a Republican, and he's doing it very cheaply," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.
On KMJ-AM radio in Fresno, Kashkari tried his hand at self-deprecating banter.
The former assistant U.S. treasury secretary, who lives in Laguna Beach, told listeners that his two big dogs were "like my kids." He joked that he looked like the bald star of "The Mummy" or "one of the Afghani guys" in "Iron Man."
"The lead terrorist in 'Iron Man' looks like me too," Kashkari said.
In a medium known for hot rhetoric, Kashkari rose to the occasion. He branded Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as a "pretty-boy candidate" whose ambition for higher office could be thwarted by actor George Clooney.
"How can you have two playboy candidates for governor in 2018?" Kashkari asked, alluding to unsubstantiated rumors that Clooney aspires to the job.
Kashkari was most feisty when he taunted Brown. He mocked the Democratic governor's taste for the writings of ancient scholars and accused him of ducking debates. "He can beat me in Latin," Kashkari said. "He can quote dead Greek philosophers better than I can."
Kashkari compared his rival unfavorably with his father, Pat Brown. As governor of California from 1959 to 1967, Pat Brown invested wisely in the state's water supply network, Kashkari said, while his son is squandering money needed for new dams and reservoirs on a "vanity train," his high-speed rail project.
"He clearly doesn't understand water," Kashkari said.
As opportunities arose to show party loyalty, Kashkari took them. He criticized efforts to raise the minimum wage. He spoke out against moves to pass new gun control laws in response to mass shootings. And he welcomed House Speaker John A. Boehner's court action against President Obama for allegedly overstepping his executive authority.
"John Boehner is now holding the president accountable," said Kashkari, who cited Obamacare rules as a presidential abuse of power.
One of his harshest attacks on Democrats was on education. Kashkari pounded Brown and other Democrats for their silence on the landmark June 10 court ruling that California's teacher hiring and tenure laws violate the right of poor and minority children to equal education by saddling them with thousands of grossly ineffective teachers.
"They should be ashamed of themselves," Kashkari told Fresno listeners on Tuesday.
On KABC, Kashkari said the idea that Brown and other Democrats were "fighting for the civil rights of poor kids" had been exposed as a lie. "They're in bed with the teachers unions," he said.
Teacher unions have spent $6 million on Brown's 2010 and 2014 runs for governor and the 2012 campaign that Brown led for Proposition 30, which imposed temporary tax hikes to generate billions of dollars to close budget shortfalls.
The governor's press secretary, Evan Westrup, said the campaign money from teacher unions had no influence on Brown's public silence on the court ruling. "The decision is a tentative ruling and it's being reviewed," he said.