For Tom McClintock, it's first things first.
The veteran state lawmaker from Thousand Oaks, a conservative thorn in Arnold Schwarzenegger's side during last year's gubernatorial recall election, is eyeing a run for lieutenant governor, or maybe state controller, in 2006.
But this fall, McClintock is trying to keep his job in the state Senate.
"I've learned over the years to take one election at a time," he said. "There are plenty of former legislators who took their last race for granted."
McClintock, 48, a Republican first elected to the Legislature in 1982, is opposed on the Nov. 2 ballot by Democrat Paul Graber of Valencia, a first-time candidate who is running because he thinks every race should be contested if democracy is to work.
"Voters have to have a choice," said Graber, 47, a high school government and history teacher in the San Fernando Valley. "And every day, this campaign is all my students want to talk about. I tell them we have to cover some curriculum too."
Graber said he has campaigned mostly on weekends and after school, knocking on doors and walking precincts in the sprawling 19th Senate District, which stretches from Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County through much of Ventura County and beyond Lompoc in Santa Barbara County.
"We've got quite a mountain to climb ....," he said.
Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) declined to challenge McClintock because the realigned 19th District had a 42% to 37% Republican advantage in registered voters.
But McClintock said he was taking nothing for granted.
He had about $440,000 in cash available through Sept. 30, after receiving $115,000 in donations since July 1.
He has spent $358,000 since January -- mostly for brochures that haven't been mailed and radio and television spots that haven't been aired.
McClintock says he is waiting to see if Graber makes a last-minute push before he runs the ads. McClintock's last poll, three months ago, showed a double-digit lead, he said. A poll this week will tell him what to do next.
"We're ready to air [the ads] if the need should arise," he said. "But it's a region I've represented for 22 years, and I feel quite comfortable in it."
Graber has received and spent about $32,000 in donations, he said.
"We don't have a million dollars to spend, but I've got 30,000 fliers ready to go out," he said. "And we've got 30 or 40 volunteers helping me with phone calls and a hard-core group of about 20 to 25 former students."
Though his message has been heard mostly in stump speeches, Graber said McClintock -- a maverick even within his own party -- was too conservative to be effective in the Legislature or to represent the voters of the 19th District.
"They call him the uncompromising shadow governor," Graber said, because Schwarzenegger adopted some of the senator's budget-cutting proposals during the recall campaign and has pushed a few more since being elected.
"They both come down on the side of business," Graber said. "They talk about tightening your belt, but the belt-tightening is being done by the middle class. They raise tuition at UC and Cal State campuses, but they keep a ton of loopholes for corporations."
Graber agrees with the goals of Schwarzenegger's performance review commission, formed from a McClintock concept, to streamline state government. But he faults McClintock for supporting school vouchers.
"He'd undercut public schools," Graber said. "Look at the improving numbers. Public schools are doing fine."
McClintock said he had never met Graber and had received none of the usual invitations from civic groups to debate him: "Only from his high school, which is outside the district."
But that doesn't mean McClintock hasn't been active this fall. As the state's most prominent conservative Republican, he is in demand on behalf of legislative candidates in districts the GOP considers winnable.
This week he campaigned for Assembly candidates Chuck DeVore in Orange County and Paul Bettencourt in Fresno. He taped a TV commercial for Dean Gardner, an Assembly candidate in Kern County. And he held a news conference to oppose passage of a ballot measure supporting $3 billion in bonds for stem cell research. Schwarzenegger supports the measure.
Anticipating victory, despite his cautious words, McClintock sounded more like a candidate for higher office as he set his goals for a new term. He said he would enlist voter support to force the Legislature and the governor to balance the state's budget.
One ballot measure would restore the authority that the governor held for 44 years, until 1983, to unilaterally cut spending when it outstrips revenue.
A second measure would resurrect tax-activist Paul Gann's cap on state spending, so it could increase only as fast as inflation and population growth combined. Had such a cap been in place from 1998 through 2003, the state would have had a healthy surplus rather than a $38-billion shortfall, he said. Despite huge borrowing, the budget shortfall is still billions of dollars.
McClintock said he also wanted voters to change the California Constitution to allow the state to pay outside contractors to provide government services.
"You would shift jobs from overpriced bureaucracies to private contractors," he said. "It's the single most important cost containment mechanism we could adopt."