I watched Antonio Villaraigosa’s 24-hour straight “Progress Never Sleeps” tour hit the Carpenters union hall in Sylmar yesterday. There was the usual chants of support, reminders from the union leaders that as mayor Villaraigosa “put us to work, that’s why we are here,” and even a harmonica rendition of the Star Spangled Banner with Villaraigosa jumping in to lead the singing of the anthem part way through the rendition. All well received by the hundred-plus in attendance but the question is whether the message Villaraigosa carried of driving down the center of the political road will take him to the promised land of a top two finish in the governor’s race?

Villaraigosa admitted he was in a tough race, saying he has been described as a conservative because he wants to pay bills, balance budgets, and have government live within its means.

But he also said it is not right or left, liberal or conservative to balance the budget, secure health care, improve schools, see that workers have pensions and invest in human capital.

Staying away from the right and left of the road is the former LA mayor’s planned route to the governor’s chair. He said, “A whole group of people in both parties want to drive down the center lane.”

Probably true, but is that a winning political strategy?

A lot of folks occupy the political center but those people tend to stay home on Election Day. Activist and partisans vote and in low turn out elections, which mid-term primaries tend to be, partisans overpower the middle of the road dwellers Villaraigosa is appealing to.

The former LA mayor is aware of the problem. Speaking to the Los Angeles area audience he said people are banking that LA doesn’t vote. His tour is intended to rally the voters to come out.

Political history is not always kind to the middle-of-the-road approach, and the tactic might be shunned more so in this time of partisan polarization. Will Villaraigosa’s gamble overcome? Pick your metaphor:

“The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.” Texas politician Jim Hightower