The Gubernatorial ‘Game:’ Who Will Come Out on Top in California’s Primary?

SACRAMENTO -- According to recent polls, Republican businessman John Cox and former Democratic Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa are in a close battle for second place in the race for governor and to face front-runner Gavin Newsom in November.

"A race for second is really a race for the center. For the Democratic base, for the center and for the right," said Mike Madrid, strategist for the Villaraigosa campaign.

Madrid says if his candidate finishes second in the June primary he’ll pose a bigger challenge for Newsom in November. In a Democrat versus Democrat race, he says Villaraigosa could be a more appealing choice to moderate and conservative voters.

"I don’t think there’s any serious political observer, myself included, who thinks that a Republican stands a chance in November," Madrid told FOX40.

FOX40 asked Cox directly about the Villaraigosa camp’s claim that he is the candidate Gavin Newsom wants to run against. The following was his pointed response:

"The people of this state deserve a choice between two different candidates. They don’t want Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. The last thing they want is a choice between two, basically the same politician. They’re almost identical on most issues."

So who does front-runner Newsom want to face off against?

"The top two primaries, whether you like it or not, does make for some very interesting political maneuvering," said CALmatters political columnist Dan Walters.

Walters says it's obvious. Look no further than Newsom’s ads.

"He’s attacking Cox so the Republicans will feel better about Cox and be more likely to vote for him, and make him the second place finisher," Walters said. "It’s a game within a game within a game."

What is clear — the race for second place is crucial. If no Republican appears on the ballot in November that could mean Republican voters stay home, which might affect congressional races and the gas tax statewide.