SACRAMENTO — Most governors would jump at the chance to appear on national television on a prestigious show, for example, like "Meet the Press." But not George Deukmejian.
People might think he was running for President, and everybody knows what happened to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s popularity when he ran for President, Deukmejian has lectured aides.
Most governors would eagerly accept a head table seat at a fancy dinner honoring a world leader like Chinese President Li Xiannian. But not George Deukmejian.
He had "a longstanding personal family commitment." One adviser, requesting anonymity, commented: "It's fine to take your wife out to dinner, but. . . ."
Most governors, if a rare humpback whale named Humphrey swam virtually into their backyards, would exhibit some normal human curiosity--not to mention politically sensitive concern for an endangered species--and go have a look. But not George Deukmejian.
"When I suggested it, the answer was, 'Why do you want to do that?' And I said, 'Well, if you don't know, I'm not going to be able to tell you,' " recalled Doug Watts, a private political consultant and former media adviser to Deukmejian.
An anonymous high state official, who also advocated a gubernatorial visit to the whale, noted, " 'Duke' does not have a P. T. Barnum streak in him, and this would have required it."
Most big-state governors--certainly a California governor--indeed would be plotting to become President. But not George Deukmejian.
"He's never talked about it," Chief of Staff Steven A. Merksamer said, echoing a report of all the governor's top advisers.
Kenneth Khachigian, a speech writer, political adviser and longtime confidant of both Deukmejian and President Reagan, said, "That bug stings people at odd times, but I can say this: George has been extremely immune in the past to the fluff and sound of (running for President). There never has been any of that unstinting ambition in him that you see in other people."
Most governors like Deukmejian--relatively reclusive, unassertive nationally, seemingly lacking higher ambition, kind of humdrum--would be in deep trouble politically as they approached reelection. But not this governor.
Seen as a Winner
There is virtually no one on either side of the political fence in California who does not regard the Republican incumbent as a heavy favorite to win a second term next November in a reelection race with Democrat Tom Bradley, the four-term mayor of Los Angeles.
"Deukmejian's pretty strong," conceded Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco, one of the state's most powerful and politically astute Democrats. "His strength comes from a public perception that he's a good manager.
"And that is because financially we're in pretty good shape. There have been no major problems--no riots, no breakdown in the mental health system, no blackouts, no Medfly, none of those things that plagued Jerry Brown during the last years of his governorship, or plagued other governors full time. . . .
"So far, nobody has raised a glove on George Deukmejian."
Deukmejian's dullness has paid off in durability. Entering his third year in office, this governor has a public job performance rating that was found by pollster Mervin Field to be higher than it ever had been for Reagan as governor and equal to Brown's early popularity in that office, before it took a nose dive.
"George Deukmejian is not flashy--he's a good, gray, sober-sided steward of trust," Field said in an interview. "People have only a vague notion of him, but it's not negative."
Little Voter Pique
Deukmejian is not electrifying, but neither is he a lightning rod for voter pique--and there does not seem to be a lot of voter pique right now anyway. Field, director of the California Poll, reported last spring that "the public is decidedly upbeat in their appraisal of the state of the economy (and in) their own sense of economic well-being. . . . Nearly nine in 10 Californians feel that things are generally going well in the state."
If Deukmejian and Bradley do run against each other--a foregone conclusion because neither faces the prospect of a major challenge for his party's nomination--it will be the first rematch of a gubernatorial contest in California's 136-year history.
In their first race, Deukmejian, then attorney general, won by a scant 1.2% of the vote, a margin of 93,345 ballots of the nearly 7.9 million cast. That 1982 contest was the closest gubernatorial election since 1902.
"It'll be another close race this time, but not as close as '82," predicted veteran GOP strategist Stuart K. Spencer, who was an adviser to Deukmejian in the days when he was winning legislative races but is not involved in the governor's reelection campaign. "I don't see what Bradley's done to improve his position. In politics, sometimes you get one good shot and that's it."