Campbell making all the right moves

SACRAMENTO -- Tom Campbell doesn't appear to stand a prayer of winning the Republican nomination for governor, let alone the job of chief executive itself. But what if:

— Voters in the Republican primary in June are looking for a new governor who doesn't need training wheels, who could get up to speed from the start and has been leveling with them about the precise routes he'll take.

— Campbell's two mega-rich GOP competitors -- former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and state insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- commit do each other in with TV attack ads.

— Gov. Schwarzenegger provides Campbell with a priceless ballot title: "Lieutenant Governor." The office is expected to be vacated soon. The incumbent, Democrat John Garamendi, is favored to win a congressional seat in a special election Nov. 3. His replacement would be appointed by the governor. Campbell was Schwarzenegger's finance director in 2005 and the two share similar ideologies, if not styles.

Have they talked about the lieutenant governor's job? "I'm going to keep my conversations confidential," Campbell told me. One huge problem, however, with the scenario of an appointment: It would have to be confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"Campbell is the Republican who scares us the most," says Bill Cavala, a former Democratic operative for the state Assembly who's managing Garamendi's campaign. "Not in a thousand years would we breathe life into such a dangerous candidate."

OK, that in itself would be a gift: Campbell would get a lot of media attention. And after Democrats rudely rejected him, he could appeal to Republican voters by railing against Sacramento's hyper-partisan politics.

But Campbell, 57, rarely rails. More commonly he lectures, like the longtime professor that he is when not representing Silicon Valley in Congress or the state Senate. He also has run twice unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.

Nobody I've talked to gives Campbell much chance of winning, for three basic reasons:

— First, he's a political pauper. He'll be greatly outspent by Whitman and Poizner, who can dig into their own deep pockets.

— Second, his personality isn't exactly rock-star quality. He comes across as the smartest kid in the class, and he usually is. But he isn't someone voters would warm to naturally.

— Third, he may seem too centrist for GOP activists.

But he's holding his own in the early competition. A Field Poll released last week showed him essentially tied with Whitman among Republican primary voters. In general election matchups, all three Republicans trailed Democrat Gavin Newsom -- Campbell less so. Jerry Brown clobbered everyone.

Few people are paying attention. But Campbell's still pumping out specifics, including these:

— Taxes. He won't take the "no tax" pledge because that would "handcuff" a governor. He wants "flexibility." In fact, he proposed a one-year gas tax increase to balance the state budget rather than borrow and raid local treasuries. He wouldn't touch Proposition 13.

— Marijuana. He's against legalizing and taxing it. "That would be absurd because the federal government won't permit it." Besides, he adds, many marijuana distributors also peddle meth.

— Budget. Cut back all social spending -- on health care, welfare and aged and disabled people -- to the national average. And ask Washington to allow California to take all the federal and state money spent on health care for the poor -- $42 billion -- and permit private insurers to compete to provide the care. That could save $8.6 billion, he asserts. The feds probably wouldn't agree, he admits, "but one has to try."

— Water. He would call for help from the so-called god squad, a federal panel that could exempt the Delta smelt from endangered species protection and pump water back into San Joaquin Valley irrigation ditches. He would transplant that tiny fish to another body of water.

Long term, he would heighten Shasta Dam, develop an off-stream reservoir and build the controversial peripheral canal around the delta. He also would emphasize conservation and encourage desalinization using clean, economical nuclear power.

Call him a fiscal conservative and social moderate -- not far from the California mainstream.