In California, Republican candidate runs outside-the-box campaign for governor

Neel Kashkari is running a different kind of Republican campaign.

He spent one week over the summer living as a homeless person to bring attention to poverty. He visited an African American church frequented by Democratic politicians to speak with congregants. He marched in a gay pride parade.

These may not be on the bucket list for many Republican candidates, but Kashkari is running for governor in California. And he's trying to change perceptions about his party -- and about him -- as he mounts an uphill battle to unseat Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown this fall.

"I not only want to make major changes in the state, but to open hearts and minds to what Republicans really stand for," Kashkari told

He says he's running, in a state decimated by the financial crisis and years of state budget crisis, to "rebuild the middle class in California."

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    And he brings a unique background to the table. Kashkari is a former aerospace engineer turned investment banker who landed an appointment with the Treasury Department under the George W. Bush administration and later oversaw the financial industry bailout -- before leaving Washington in 2009.

    But Democrats aren't buying his brand of outreach. They say what appears to be unconventional campaign tactics -- at least for a Republican -- are nothing but publicity stunts designed to gain leverage in a race he is clearly losing.

    "Kashkari's stunt-driven campaign has failed to catch traction for good reason. Under Governor Brown, over 1 million new jobs have been added and unemployment has dropped every year, four years in a row," California Democratic Party spokesman Tenoch Flores said in a statement to

    "Voters know the state is in much better shape with Democrats in charge, and that's why survey after survey shows Kashkari stuck at close to 30 percent."

    In the most recent polling since Kashkari won a place on the general election ballot in the June 3 statewide primary, Kashkari indeed trails Brown by at least 20 points. He is also bleeding cash. As of June 30, Kashkari had less than $200,000 on hand after spending $4.3 million on a tough primary race against Tea Party favorite, Republican Tim Donnelly.

    Brown has no such problems. After spending $13.8 million, the governor still had $22.3 million in the bank as of June 30.

    Dan Mitchell, professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, said Kashkari's best hope is to get more public exposure before November. "Kashkari is using whatever he can to get attention," he said.

    Mitchell pointed, for instance, to the week this summer the candidate lived on the streets of Fresno posing as a homeless man, looking for work, in an effort to show that California's "comeback" had a long way to go.

    For the project, Kashkari took a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Fresno with $40 in his pocket, one change of clothes and a toothbrush. He set out with two videographers to document the experience, now posted on his website.

    "Jerry Brown calls it the California comeback. So I want to see what that comeback looks like," he says in the video. In the video, an unshaven Kashkari is shown sleeping in the park and getting rejected for jobs. He said he ran out of food and turned to the homeless shelter to find help.

    "He got a fair amount of publicity out of that," said Mitchell. "There were those who were critical for what he did, but still, he got his name out there."

    Kashkari, 41, loathes the idea that his "creative strategies" are being called mere stunts.

    "I think those are pathetic responses," he said. "When the Democratic leadership doesn't know how to attack you on the substance, on message, they just demonize you."

    Kashkari, who lives in the predominantly white Truckee, Calif., also visited and spoke with congregants at an African American church in South Los Angeles on June 15. And he marched in San Diego's 40th Annual LGBT parade in July.

    Kashkari says he frustrates the establishment, which would rather pigeonhole him as an out-of-touch conservative.

    The son of Indian immigrants who left their home in Kashmir in the 1960's to settle in Ohio, Kashkari says he does not look or talk like a stereotypical Republican. He said he does not believe Brown has resolved the state's economic problems, and wants to show Republicans care about wages and poverty and joblessness -- they just differ on how to resolve them.

    "In this race, the Democrat is the old white guy," he said. "Most of the stereotypes are turned upside down and the Democratic leadership is outraged."

    According to political analysts, the Republican establishment in the state largely favored Kashkari over Donnelly in the primary because they thought Kashkari could better appeal to the state's critical moderates and independents.

    Bill Whalen, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, noted 43.6 percent of registered voters in California are Democrats, compared with 29 percent Republicans and 21 percent independents. The numbers for both Republicans and Democrats have been shrinking over the last 10 years, however, so appealing to independents is more important than ever.

    "What this is telling you is that [voters] are listening to both parties and they find they aren't listening to their concerns," Whalen told "You've got to win independent votes to really cross over."

    "That gets you back to the issues of economy and education -- that unites California regardless of party affiliation."

    Kashkari said he refused to be backed into a corner where he would be forced to run to the right of his opponent during the primary. "I did not compromise," he said. "I'm a socially moderate libertarian who wants the government out of our lives, so my agenda is economic issues." He doesn't fear losing his support among the GOP either. "Now that we are through the primary, the Republican base is with me -- they want change in Sacramento."