It still is three years until the next gubernatorial election, but Gov. George Deukmejian got a head start on a probable third-term bid Thursday night by raising $1.2 million in campaign seed money at a $1,000-per-plate dinner in Century City.
The governor expects to collect another $500,000 at a similar dinner next Wednesday in San Francisco.
Deukmejian still has not actually said that he intends to seek a third term. It probably will be sometime after the 1988 elections before the governor makes a firm decision, but he and his political advisers are proceeding as if he already is a candidate.
"There's a high probability that he will run," said Los Angeles attorney Karl M. Samuelian, the Republican governor's chief fund-raiser and longtime confidant. "I'm gearing up mentally for a third term campaign."
Deukmejian's press secretary, Kevin Brett, said the purpose of the dinners is "to preserve the governor's options" to seek reelection without having to worry about suddenly being forced to raise a lot of start-up money. The preliminary budget for a 1990 race is $15 million, Samuelian said. The governor spent $13 million in winning a second term last year.
Thursday night's dinner had all the hoopla of a mid-campaign political rally: Rams football coach John Robinson was the emcee, comedian Yakov Smirnoff told jokes after dinner, Boy Scouts carried flags and teen-agers sang. The governor spoke, too, of course, and he sounded unmistakably like a candidate.
"Today, the whole world is up in arms over deficits," he said, referring to federal red ink. "Well, five years ago, California had a (budget) deficit. We paid off the deficit, and we have had five balanced budgets, established a reserve for emergencies and this year we are returning over $1 billion to the taxpayers. . . .
"Five years ago, the unofficial curriculum in many of our schools was drugs, delinquency and dropping out. We still have a long way to go, but . . . our schools are on the road back to quality. . . .
"And five years ago, we still had a judiciary which, in pursuit of procedural perfection, bent over backwards on behalf of criminals at the expense of public safety and common sense. Today, California is no longer soft on crime."
Then, as if announcing his reelection candidacy, the governor told his financial backers: "This evening is not only for looking back, but for looking ahead. . . . We cannot afford to allow the state to fall back into the hands of those who would bust the budget, raise taxes, sap economic growth and individual initiative and reverse our common-sense approach to the courts."
The conventional political wisdom in California is that there is a jinx against governors running for a third term. In a high-media state such as this, the experts say, governors tend to wear out their welcomes after eight years.
But Deukmejian is a low-visibility governor, his strategists note, and has worn well with voters. Besides, only two California governors have ever sought third terms: One, Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1966; but the other, Earl Warren, won by a landslide in 1950. "I'll take 50-50 odds," commented Steven A. Merksamer, a former Deukmejian chief of staff who remains in his inner circle of political advisers.
The governor's intimates acknowledge that the main question to be answered in deciding whether to seek a third term is what are the odds on winning. Deukmejian won a landslide reelection victory of historic proportions over Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley last year, but his next opponent figures to be tougher. Also, the political climate could change drastically if there is an economic recession.
Two Democratic statewide officeholders already are preparing tentatively for the race: Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who expects to have $1 million in his campaign kitty by the end of this year, and Controller Gray Davis, whom an aide said has raised about $425,000. Outgoing San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein also has talked about running.
After having briefly flirted with, but rejected, the idea of running this year as a favorite-son presidential candidate, Deukmejian recently has been trying to assert himself more--in his own cautious way--into the national arena of politics and policy making.
The governor will address the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, on Nov. 17 in Washington. And he has tentatively scheduled a forum for GOP presidential candidates in Irvine on Dec. 19. So far, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and New York Rep. Jack Kemp have agreed to appear; Vice President George Bush is a "maybe."
Meanwhile, even if Deukmejian winds up never running for a third term, just acting like he plans to and preparing for the race helps to retain his political muscle and makes it easier to deal with the Democratic-controlled Legislature. "I'm not being perceived as a lame duck and I don't intend to be perceived as a lame duck," he recently declared in an interview.
Said Merksamer: "The probabilities are looking more and more in the direction of his running."