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After failing to generate either much momentum or money for a campaign, former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado has officially ended his early effort to run for governor - thus leaving the battle for California's Republican votes to two lesser-known candidates.

Maldonado, who served nine years in the Legislature before being appointed to fill the vacant lieutenant governor's post in 2009, had been hinting for a couple of days of a big announcement on Thursday, which many assumed would be a more formal kickoff of his gubernatorial campaign.

But it was just the opposite.

"I know I have the qualifications to be governor," he said in a prepared statement after meeting with supporters in his hometown of Santa Maria. "I have concluded that now is not my time."

Maldonado has struggled politically since 2009, when he cast a deciding vote in the state Senate for a temporary tax increase during the depth of California's fiscal crisis. Conservative Republican groups immediately branded him a traitor; that plus the GOP's weak statewide standing led to his defeat by Democrat Gavin Newsom in the 2010 lieutenant governor's race.

In 2012, the Central Coast family farm executive lost his bid to unseat Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara. Ever since, he had been talking about a challenge to Gov. Jerry Brown this year.

"It's just time for me, to take a break and focus more of my time on being a full-time dad and husband," he said in prepared remarks.

Maldonado's campaign struggled to gain any real political footing. After a rocky kickoff in Sacramento, where he criticized Brown's prison realignment program with a criminal case that wasn't actually on point, Maldonado then had a major campaign staff shakeup. He's also struggled to raise money for his gubernatorial campaign, though none of the possible challengers to Brown have had big financial success.

The 46-year old Republican's decision to not run for governor leaves the GOP side of the contest wide open.

"His exit creates a huge vacuum," said GOP political strategist Rob Stutzman. "Someone could still very realistically step into this field and make the run-off" in June.

The Democratic incumbent Brown has almost bent over backwards to avoid making his re-election bid official, even though having reported $10 million in campaign cash through last summer and has raised a lot of money since.

Two other Republicans now are presumed to be running: Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-San Bernardino County, and former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary Neel Kashkari. Donnelly has launched an exploratory campaign; Kashkari has been quietly making the GOP rounds, but has not publicly said he's in.

Neither, though, have the name ID or the experience in California campaigns that Maldonado did.

"The field now," said strategist Stutzman, "is 'no name' newcomers and a back-bencher assemblyman."

One other Republican, former congressman George Radanovich of Fresno, has said he is considering a run for governor.

The filing period to officially enter the contest doesn't begin until Feb. 10.

John Myers is News10's political editor. Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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