Neel Kashkari, center, then interim assistant Treasury secretary for financial stability, listens as then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson testifies in 2008 at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on TARP.

Neel Kashkari, center, then interim assistant Treasury secretary for financial stability, listens as then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson testifies in 2008 at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on TARP. (Ryan Kelly / Congressional Quarterly / November 18, 2008)

In 2008, when Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson needed someone to run the controversial bailout of the nation's banks, he turned to a trusted and unflappable aide who had followed him from Goldman Sachs to Washington — Neel Kashkari.

"We had other people who were senior and more experienced," Paulson recalled in an interview. "But I didn't see anyone else on my team who was willing to step up and be accountable and take the responsibility."

Five-and-a-half years later, seeking the Republican nomination for California governor, Kashkari has made his stint running the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP, a central element of his campaign.

It's an unconventional choice. TARP, as former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) later said, was "the most highly successful, wildly unpopular thing the federal government has done in my memory."

Kashkari hopes voters will focus on the program's success in combating the financial crisis, not the policy's unpopularity. His six months at TARP demonstrated an ability to run a complex program that is widely acknowledged to have helped stabilize the economy, he says.

"It was executed spectacularly," Kashkari said in an interview. "I take pride in what we did."

Interviews with Paulson and other key officials and an examination of the record confirm Kashkari's crucial role in conceiving, setting up and administering TARP during its most significant period.

The record reveals some less flattering elements as well.

Watchdog agencies complained Kashkari was overly secretive and deferential to the big banks. And at least some of the credit for recovering TARP funds — the Treasury Department has netted nearly $15 billion more than was spent — goes to Obama administration officials who ran the program after Kashkari.

Moreover, the record shows that some of the most important decisions — including the pivotal one to inject money directly into banks — were made above Kashkari's pay grade.

As Paulson made clear, "I was there making the major decisions on policy."

Still, Kashkari "was the man in terms of running it, managing it, hiring the people, making sure the programs were executed, I would say, flawlessly," Paulson said. "He exceeded my expectations."

In an interview, Kashkari was careful to give Paulson credit for the high-level decisions.

"I don't want to exaggerate my role," Kashkari said. "He was the Treasury secretary. I worked for him."

On the campaign trail, Kashkari doesn't delve into the details. He tells voters he was one of the government officials trying to stem the crisis and that he ran TARP.

"I helped design TARP. I ran TARP under two presidents," he said in the interview. "I own TARP."

Kashkari's ambition and willingness to take risks were evident from his first dealings with Paulson, who had been the chief executive at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the giant Wall Street investment bank, before President George W. Bush tapped him in 2006 to run the Treasury Department.

Paulson and Kashkari, who led the firm's information technology security investment banking practice in San Francisco, had met only once. But Kashkari called Paulson and said he wanted to join him in Washington to learn how government worked. Paulson was impressed and hired him as a senior advisor.

They joined a long line of Goldman Sachs executives who had made the move to Washington over the years, leading to the firm's moniker of Government Sachs.

Within a year, Treasury officials were grappling with a crash in the housing market. As real estate prices fell, banks that had invested heavily in bonds backed by bundles of mortgages began to rack up huge losses.