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Three Key Questions About the Governor’s Race

Monday, December 7th, 2009

reepcollageSix months before California voters select the major party candidates for governor, the basic shape of the race has become clear, with Jerry Brown having cleared the field of Democratic rivals and Meg Whitman’s early spending establishing her as the Republican favorite.

jerryheadshotIn both the Field Poll and the LA Times/USC survey, eMeg leads among the Republicans from 2-8 points over Tom Campbell, with Steve Poizner in third, a single digit presence in the race.

Within that framework, Calbuzz sees three key questions, the answers to which will largely determine if the fundamental dynamics change significantly between now and June 7:

1. Will Steve Poizner spend serious money in the next 60 days to establish himself as a legitimate rival to Whitman?
2. Will Jerry Brown begin to assemble a serious and professional 21st Century campaign team or will he continue to drift along like a leaf in a Lao Tzu parable?
3. How will change be defined in 2010? Who will claim the mantle of change and who will be saddled with the status quo?

Let’s break it down:

Poizner: Threat or Menace? As we noted last week eMeg’s willingness to toss big money on the table a year before the primary voting has started to  create a perception that she is the presumptive Republican nominee. Latest example: although it’s still way early, the Democratic Governor’s Association last week identified Whitman as one of its five top GOP targets for 2010 and has committed at least $1 million to defeating her.

While we have great admiration for Tom Campbell’s intelligence and commitment to public service, at this point, we still don’t see a way for him to pull together the resources needed to make a serious run at mega-bucks Meg. That leaves Poizner, whose personal fortune provides him the table stakes needed in this rich-blood race, potentially positioned to emerge as a conservative foil to Whitman.

tort-hare

Team Poizner eblasted a memo last week trying to calm supporters fretting that The Commish has already waited too long to get into the game; on one level, Camp Steve’s people are right, of course, that the calendar shows it’s still very early and there’s plenty of time to make up last ground. At the same time, however, Whitman’s demonstrated willingness to spend Whatever It Takes means it’ll cost major bucks just to get even with the name ID she’s already bought, let alone cruise by her by sharpening contrasts in ways that convince conservative GOP primary voters.

In other words, by waiting…and waiting…to throw at least a couple million into the pot, Poizner runs the risk of falling out of striking distance and never being able to catch up.

muhammad-ali-listonAn important corollary of this question: Does eMeg have a glass jaw? Whitman so far has seemed terrified to show up for tough duty –- making herself accessible to California reporters and engaging her rivals in face-to-face debates — so she remains an unproven commodity in being able to handle the (HT to Jack Kavanagh) rough and tumble of a campaign.

She’s headed back to Delaware this week to testify in a major lawsuit involving her tenure at eBay and it also remains to be seen whether her record as a business executive comes back to bite her the way former airlines executive Al Checchi’s did in 1998.

What’s next for Jerry? Campaign potholders, distributed door to door?   Bumper strips reading “This time he’ll get it right?” How about campaign photos posing with Linda Ronstadt next to the ’74 Plymouth?

Brown so far seems content to settle for ’80s-era campaign strategy and tactics, and determined to try to  ad lib and improvise this way back to the Horseshoe. He’s expressed contempt for political consultants and he’s a notorious tightwad.

As we’ve argued, however, it’s well past time for him to hire a cadre of political professionals to manage and focus his scattershot un-campaign for governor. True, he’s been successful to date in quietly raising several million while keeping a low profile; his big haul down in Bel-Air at the $32-million home of Sandy Gallin, former agent for the likes of Dolly Parton, Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson, in particular was “a huge success and a great launch for his effort down here,” as noted by organizer Andy Spahn, Steven Spielberg’s former political ramrod.

Still, even if Brown raises $20 million before the primary, that will barely match what Whitman as spent already. He simply can’t compete with her for money, so he needs to beat her on message and tight campaign organization, or she could bury him in paid media.

linda&jerryBrown has considerable strength among voters 50 and over and among minorities, especially Latinos, as the guy who put Cruz Reynoso on the Supreme Court and Mario Obledo in his cabinet, who marched with Caesar Chavez, signed the Agricultural Relations Act and dated the aforementioned Ms. Ronstadt all the way to South Africa.

While it would be short-sighted to underestimate Brown’s non-monetary assets, the widespread anger of voters towards elected officials, coupled with the, um, complexities of his own political record, create a treacherous landscape which will require strategic thinking and planning that goes well beyond his abiding belief in his own ability to wing it.

Who represents change? The numbers speak for themselves: More than two-thirds of voters think California is on the wrong track, the same number who think the governor is doing a lousy job, while the number of those who like the Legislature hovers barely above 10 percent.

Clearly people are disgusted with government and want change. But what kind of change, and who best represents it?

Wterminatorhitman is already banging Brown as a washed-up hack and vivid symbol of what’s wrong with the Sacramento political class. But will voters see her as what’s needed – a moderate Republican outsider from the private sector promising to reform the Capitol – after seven years of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed star turn in the same movie?

While it may be hard to portray iconclast Brown as behind the curve, how exactly does his ceaseless seeking of office — eight years as governor, former Secretary of State, Attorney General, Oakland Mayor, Democratic Party Chairman, three-time candidate for president and US Senate wannabe –- make the case that he’s just the guy to shake things up?

Poizner and Campbell have both put forward detailed and specific plans for addressing the state’s budget woes; putting aside the fiscal arguments on the merits, neither has come close to making a convincing political case that they’ll be able to implement their ideas.

Amid the chronic deficits, unshakeable political gridlock and the voter’s utter cynicism, nobody yet has offered a game-changing political and policy  formulation for leading California out of its historic decline. And that’s the biggest unanswered question of all.