FROM SACRAMENTO — Tom Campbell is one of those "what if?" political candidates with intriguing potential scenarios.
He 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 next 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 murder-suicide in a bombardment of TV attack ads? That's what Democrats Al Checchi and Jane Harman did in 1998, allowing under-funded Gray Davis to win the party nomination.
* He does manage to become the Republican nominee? Many political pros think that the centrist Campbell would be the strongest candidate against either probable Democratic offering, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown or San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
* Gov. Arnold 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 on 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, hinting that he had.
One huge problem, however, with the scenario of an LG 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 now 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 news media attention. And after Democrats rudely rejected him, he could appeal to Republican voters by railing against Sacramento's incessant hyper-partisan politics.
But Campbell, 57, rarely rails. More commonly he lectures, like the longtime professor -- law, economics, business -- 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, and most important, he's a political pauper. He'll be greatly outspent by Whitman and Poizner, who can dig into their own deep pockets for campaign cash, and are doing it.
Second, his personality isn't exactly rock-star quality. He comes across as the smartest kid in the class, and he usually is. He's highly articulate, very polite, often smiles and seldom frowns, but he isn't someone voters would naturally warm up to unless they're fellow wonks.
Third, he may seem too centrist for GOP activists, who lean far right and greatly influence party primaries.
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. The results: Whitman 22%, Campbell 20%, Poizner 9%. Whitman ran strongest among voters over 50. Campbell led comfortably among those under 50.
But half the voters were undecided and most had no opinion of any GOP candidate.
In general election matchups, all three Republicans trailed Democrat Newsom -- Campbell less so. Brown clobbered everyone.
Few people are paying attention. But Campbell's still pumping out eye-glazing 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.
But, he says, "I'd far rather lower taxes. And you should lower taxes when you've lowered expenditures, not the other way around, or you're just creating a budget deficit."
He wouldn't touch Proposition 13, the property tax break.
And he thinks a recent blue-ribbon commission headed by investor Gerald Parsky was "on the right track" when it recommended a totally new "business net receipts tax" to replace the corporation and state sales taxes. That's because it would tend to tax consumption rather than income.
* 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. Legalizing pot would set up an easy money laundering scheme for "very, very dangerous people."
* Budget. Cut back all social spending -- on healthcare, welfare and the aged and disabled -- to the national average.