LOS ANGELES -- Kevin L. James, a conservative talk show host running for mayor of Los Angeles, was sitting in his campaign office recently pondering which was his bigger obstacle to victory: being openly Republican, or being openly gay.
"Depending on what room you're in here, sometimes it's easier coming out gay to Republicans than it is coming out Republican to gays," he said.
By any measure, Mr. James, 49, is a bit of a long shot. He is a Republican brassy former prosecutor running in a Democratic city at a time when California is marching steadily to the left, making his first bid for office in a field of establishment candidates.
Yet in the first major election since President Obama's victory in November -- voting that relegated the California Republican Party to the margins -- Mr. James has become, at least for a few national Republicans, something of a lifeline. They see in his candidacy in the March 5 vote an outside chance to grab what could be a spirit-lifting victory, and perhaps even signal a way to get back in the game in California.
Fred Davis, a Republican ad producer based in the Hollywood Hills who worked for the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, created a political action committee to finance an advertising campaign to help Mr. James compete with his better-financed competitors. Mr. Davis was looking to raise $4 million from Republicans across the nation; he has since scaled back that goal a bit (he had raised $700,000 as of Friday).
And Mr. James has retained John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who has long advised Mr. McCain, as his senior political adviser. Mr. Weaver has increasingly warned that Republicans are marginalizing themselves by moving to the right on issues like abortion, gay rights and immigration.
"He is from central casting about what a future Republican candidate can look like in an urban or blue state and win," Mr. Weaver said. "It's important for the party. We have not done well nationally since we stopped winning in California."
Mr. James's draw for these men is not only that he is a fiscal conservative who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, or that he is a colorful show horse in a field of gray. (At a debate the other night, he kept standing up when it was his turn to speak, even as everyone else settled politely into their chairs.)
It is also who he is -- or rather, what he is.
"Here I am talking to this intelligent Republican guy that no one has ever heard of, who didn't have any personal money, and I'm thinking, no way," Mr. Davis said, recounting his first meeting with Mr. James. "A couple of days later, in researching the guy, there was some mention that he was gay."
"It was a great moment," Mr. Davis said. "Because all of a sudden, all those social ills go away. There's nothing to be scared of. It's one of the things that made me decide we should go ahead with this venture."
In theory, this is as good a place as any to test-drive new Republican appeals. States do not get much bluer than California, in no small part because of the increase in the numbers of Latinos and Asian-Americans who are voting Democratic. Even a partial victory by Mr. James could be instructive for Republicans, not to mention a tonic for a party that needs one.
It will not be easy.
"On the national stage, he is the perfect example of the Republican dilemma," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant advising one of Mr. James's Democratic rivals, Eric Garcetti, a member of the City Council. "He has to both energize a shrinking base of Republican voters who are decidedly more conservative than the rest of the city's electorate, at the same time he reaches out to the ultimate Democratic voters. It's a hell of a challenge."
But Mr. James could well affect the final outcome here. Given Mr. Davis's effort and the crowded field, Mr. James is positioned to squeeze his way into a two-way runoff this spring. If he does, it will probably be at the expense of Wendy Greuel, the city comptroller, who is competing for the same votes in the San Fernando Valley where Mr. James has a constituency. Mr. James has directed most of his attacks against her.
Whether he could beat a Democrat in a two-way race -- polls suggest that the opponent would be Mr. Garcetti -- is decidedly less likely.
Mr. James has not always been a Republican; he registered as a Democrat during the height of the AIDS crisis, when he was a member of the board of the AIDS Project Los Angeles, viewing Democrats as much more concerned about AIDS issues. He declined to say for whom he voted in November; Mr. Obama won 61 percent of the vote in California.
"I'm not going to go into the presidential race," he said. "It's history, it's behind us, and it doesn't apply to my race."
At the very least, Mr. James has provided a dash of drama to what has otherwise been a low-spark election to succeed Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa. At a League of Women Voters debate recently, the moderator asked the candidates whether they would renegotiate the 5.6 percent raises due for city workers next year if the city was still in a fiscal crisis.
Mr. Garcetti responded with a barely audible "no." Ms. Greuel gave an equivocal answer that produced a rustle of laughter among a few in the audience. Mr. James jumped to his feet.
"My opponents gave them those raises," he said. "They must be renegotiated, and I will do that."
Michael Saltz, who hosted a block party for Mr. James in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley, responded to that kind of appeal.
"He is the only person running for mayor who is not responsible for the worst decline in the history of L.A.," he said.
Mr. Davis is known for making or proposing political advertisements intended to be provocative, sometimes too much so. He wrote an advertising plan for a political action committee working on behalf of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, suggesting that it "do exactly what John McCain would not let us do" and produce advertisements linking Mr. Obama to the racially incendiary sermons delivered by Mr. Obama's former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The advertisement was never made.
Mr. Davis said that while he was spending much of his energy on this race -- his other clients include Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan -- he was careful not to exaggerate its potential symbolism.
"It's a little tiny start," he said. "I'm not silly. I don't think the mayor of Los Angeles is going to be the next face of the Republican Party. But I think it would be an enormous wake-up call to the Republican Party if we succeeded."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.