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On Politics: Republicans think they’ve found the ideal candidate for governor. So why isn’t Kevin Faulconer interested?

San Diego mayor
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer may be the ideal Republican for governor. But he says he won’t run in 2018.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

As a young man and a lover of literature, Kevin Faulconer channeled his inner Hemingway and ran with the bulls in Pamplona.

It was “probably one of the most exciting, terrifying 45 seconds that I can remember,” said the mayor of San Diego, throwing his head back and releasing a long, rollicking laugh.

It was also an experience, filled with recklessness and danger, he’s not eager to replicate anytime soon.

At age 50, comfortably ensconced in his second term, Faulconer has emerged as the fair-haired favorite of California Republicans desperate for a serious candidate to run for governor in 2018, when term limits finally end the Jerry Brown era.

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In many ways, the leader of California’s second-most-populous city seems an ideal prospect.

He is a fiscal conservative who supports same-sex marriage and passed a local climate change measure praised by that greenest of gurus, Al Gore himself. He is fluent in Spanish. He not only won landslide reelection in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, but also carried a substantial chunk of the Latino vote running against a Latina opponent.

There’s just one problem: Faulconer insists he’s not interested.

He swore during his 2016 reelection campaign he would serve all four years as mayor and he’s not backing off that pledge.

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Still ironclad? “It is,” he replied in an interview this week in his City Hall office.

Faulconer’s 11th-floor perch, with its picture-window view of downtown, contains the usual mix of sports memorabilia, commemorative plaques and family mementos. What stand out are two photographs, framed together and hung prominently, of the mayor shaking hands with President Obama.

On a shelf are two smaller photographs of Faulconer with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a two-time GOP candidate for president, and Ann Romney, the wife of the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

“I’m all over the place,” the mayor offered, in a jokey aside.

That may be commendable for the holder of a nominally nonpartisan office. But the political world has radically changed since another San Diego mayor, with a strikingly similar profile, was elected U.S. senator and later governor.

Back when Pete Wilson won his Senate seat in 1982, California had a large-sized political center and plenty of Democrats willing to cross over and vote for a Republican who was fiscally tightfisted but environmentally conscious and pro-choice on abortion. (There was also still a place in the national Republican Party for an animal of such mixed pedigree.)

Politics have grown far more polarized since. Negotiating is seen as weakness. Compromise is considered surrender. With the two parties shooting at each other from their far corners, the middle ground is a smaller patch and, arguably, a much more dangerous place to stand.

Given the reality, any Republican running statewide in 2018 will face a difficult, if not impossible, task: appeasing the party base by sticking with President Trump while, at the same time, appealing to the mass of Californians who rejected him and his pugnacious policies in November.

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The challenge was amply demonstrated Monday at a news conference featuring Faulconer and the mayor of Tijuana, Juan Manuel Gastelum. It wasn’t running with the bulls but still required some elaborate footwork.

Mixing English and Spanish as they stood before the flags of the U.S. and Mexico, the mayors extolled the economic and social ties between friends and next-door neighbors, insisting nothing Trump says or does will ever change that close bond. (Though, notably, the name “Trump” never passed either of their lips.)

More than half a dozen times reporters asked some variation of how Trump’s taunting of Mexico might sunder the warm San Diego-Tijuana relationship. More than half a dozen times Faulconer sidestepped the question.

“This is an opportunity to talk about what’s working on the local level,” he said, with a smoothness polished in his past career in public relations. “It’s up to us to continue the good work we’re doing.”

The repudiation of Trump and his fear-filled depiction of U.S.-Mexico relations was obvious, if unspoken; from a political standpoint, the slap with a gloved hand was probably just enough to antagonize Trump supporters without satisfying his critics.

Afterward, back in his office, Faulconer offered his vision of a successful, revivified California GOP: A party that is issue-oriented and solution-focused and reaches out to African Americans and the growing ranks of Asian American and Latino voters.

It is a vision very much at odds with the anger-stoked politics of the Republican sitting in the White House who, for lack of alternatives, defines the party for most Californians.

“There’s no doubt that the national conversation has been very difficult,” Faulconer said, allowing the thought to trail off with a swig of Diet Coke.

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To win again in California, he went on, Republicans need to be inclusive — he underlined the word with added inflection — and “be the party that represents opportunity for everyone, regardless of your background. When we talk about that opportunity, when we give folks that ability to get ahead, we’re going to win. If we don’t, we won’t.”

But again, he stated, someone else will have to bear that message in the governor’s race — at least in 2018.

Asked if he might run sometime after that, Faulconer demurred. “I’m fully focused on my four years here and how we can make a huge difference,” the mayor said.

Take that as a yes.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: @markzbarabakon Twitter.

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