In California's first incumbent-free race for governor since voters switched to a top-two primary system, nearly two dozen candidates are jockeying for a spot in the runoff, including five Democrats and two Republicans with deep pockets or experience in politics.
For now, the contest is a race for second place.
Democrat Gavin Newsom is widely viewed as the front-runner, better known and better funded than his rivals looking for one of two tickets to the general election.
Newsom announced plans to run for governor in 2018 almost immediately after winning re-election as lieutenant governor four years ago and has been running ever since to replace Jerry Brown, who is barred by term limits from seeking a fifth term.
"He's beaten his opponent to the punch, be it on ideas, be it on message, be it on money. Being first. Every Democrat in the race seems to be playing catch up to him," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
While they'll all be on the same ballot, they're speaking to very different voters. Democrats are debating who is best qualified to stand up for California against President Donald Trump. Republicans are relentlessly hammering taxes and immigration.
Among Democrats, no issue has motivated the party's base like single-payer health care — a plan to provide government-funded insurance to everyone in the state. Newsom has staked out the left lane, aligning himself most firmly with single-payer supporters while his principal rivals — Antonio Villaraigosa and John Chiang — say they support the concept but insist Newsom is selling voters a fantasy with too many political and legal hurdles to pass anytime soon.
Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, has leaned heavily on his 2004 decision to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in San Francisco, which threw gasoline on a simmering culture war 11 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gays and lesbians could not be barred from marriage.
"I've got a record of taking risks. I've got a record of being bold, and I just feel like that's what you're going to need in your next governor," Newsom said. "Not recklessness, but risk-taking."
An April poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Newsom with a commanding lead, supported by 26 percent of likely voters. Republican businessman John Cox was second at 15 percent, followed by Villaraigosa at 13 percent and GOP state Assemblyman Travis Allen at 10 percent. Chiang and former schools superintendent Delaine Eastin were in the single digits while 22 percent of voters said they were undecided in the survey of the 867 likely voters. It had a margin of sampling error rate of 4.4 percent.
Meet the California Gubernatorial Debate Candidates
An accountant and former attorney who owns thousands of apartment units, Cox has emphasized his business experience and what he calls the corrupt influence of special interests.
"The people running are a bunch of politicians," Cox said. "And I think people want better management and a change in direction, and that's what I'm going to give them."
Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles and state Assembly speaker, is focused on energizing Latinos, less affluent Democrats and unaffiliated voters struggling to share in the state's rising prosperity.
"You can't be the sixth largest economy in the world ... with the highest effective poverty rate," he said. "We've got to address the high cost of living."
State Treasurer John Chiang promises sober-minded, no-drama competence, calling himself "the progressive who can balance a checkbook."
Chiang emphasizes his experience in all of California's elected financial positions — treasurer, controller and member of the Board of Equalization, which collects taxes and mediates disputes over tax bills. He also has jabbed at public adultery scandals that clouded the mayoral tenures of Villaraigosa and Newsom.
"I'm not going to do anything to embarrass the office or the people," Chiang said.
Eastin, who served as state schools chief for eight years ending in 2003, has found enthusiastic support among supporters of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, who see an authentic candidate fighting hard for progressive priorities.
- Watch the governors debate LIVE on NBCBayArea.com May 8 at 6:30 p.m. or tune in to the televised event on NBC Bay Area.
Amanda Renteria, a former congressional aide and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, stunned observers as a late entrant to the race earlier this year in February. Renteria, who is Latina, said the state needs new faces and voices in leadership.
Cox and Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach have relentlessly attacked a recent increase in the gas tax and California's "sanctuary state" law that restricts cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. The issues have energized the GOP base in a state where Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans, although Allen has taken the most aggressively pro-Trump stance.
Both also backed competing efforts to repeal the gas tax approved by lawmakers. Allen's effort fizzled, while voters may decide on Cox's in November.
The fight between Cox and Allen raises the prospect that the November contest could feature two Democrats — a first in California and a scenario that worries some Republicans who fear conservative voters may sit out the election if there are no Republicans in the highest profile races. That could hurt Republican U.S. House candidates.