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NEWS ANALYSIS

It's a small field of candidates for such a huge race

Gavin Newsom's withdrawal from California gubernatorial race leaves Democrats with just one option -- Jerry Brown, who'll need to hoard his resources for a bruising battle with wealthy GOP contenders.

November 01, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

SAN FRANCISCO — California has roughly 37 million residents and about 17 million registered voters. Of those, more than 7 million are declared Democrats.

But, for the moment at least, the party has only one serious candidate with a chance of being elected governor -- Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who, for the record, is not yet seeking the job. At least not officially.

The abrupt withdrawal Friday of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has produced one of the strangest scenes that California -- home of the movie-star governor, the voter revolt, the cutting-edge ballot measure -- has seen in some time.

That is, an utter lack of meaningful competition for one of the most high-profile and important jobs in American politics.

True, there is a fierce struggle on the Republican side, where two enormously wealthy candidates are investing small chunks of their fortunes to win the GOP nomination. (The woefully underfunded Tom Campbell, armed with little more than a sheaf of substantive proposals and an almost terminal thoughtfulness, is struggling to compete.) But California is a Democratic state, by registration and inclination, and there is a strong presumption that the party's nominee in 2010 will at least start out with an advantage in the fall campaign.

So why, apart from Brown, is no one of serious stature running in the party's primary?

The answer speaks broadly to the nature of politics (it's a rough, nasty business), the challenge of seeking office in California (it's a big, expensive place to campaign) and, not least, the difficult times we're in. The next governor will probably face an awful mess.

"It's a thankless job right now," said Gale Kaufman, one of Sacramento's top Democratic strategists. "It's not just making California into whatever your vision is. It's really trying to just hang on in a horrible economic situation where all your choices are terrible choices."

Apart from those factors, Brown, although easily mocked for his eccentricities and quixotic presidential ambitions, brings a considerable set of assets to the Democratic contest, including wide name recognition, a healthy bank account, broad appeal among key Democratic constituencies and experience from repeated statewide campaigns. Brown is, in short, a formidable front-runner even if he is still technically just "exploring" a run for governor.

It is striking, and perhaps a bit embarrassing, that a party that celebrates youth, diversity and change has no choices, for now, beyond a 71-year-old white male who has been part of the political scene for 40 years. Not surprisingly, those most often raised as potential challengers have something different to offer.

Democratic Reps. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove and Jane Harman of Venice were said to be weighing the prospect of running even before Newsom dropped out.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein continues to lurk in the background, as she has in repeated gubernatorial contests since she first ran statewide in 1990. But barring a change of heart, Feinstein seems content to enjoy her senior status in Washington.

There is also considerable speculation about the possibility of some yet-unknown rich people throwing themselves and their hefty bankrolls into the Democratic contest. California has a long history of mogul-turned-candidates, most of them unsuccessful. Even now, former EBay executive Meg Whitman is struggling with the transition from boardroom to political ring as she fights for the GOP nod.

But that precedent never seems to scare people off; typically, one does not make huge piles of money by caving to self-doubt.

Still, it is telling that several of Brown's most credible Democratic challengers took themselves out of the running soon after Newsom's announcement. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said through a spokesman that he plans to seek reelection. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, passing on the governor's race a second time, indicated he would stay put at City Hall. Former state Controller Steve Westly, who spent a good amount of his high-tech fortune trying for the 2006 gubernatorial nomination, said he will keep to the sideline.

Money is a big consideration for anyone who can't self-fund a candidacy.

By most estimates, a serious primary contender needs upward of $10 million, and probably closer to $20 million or more, to be competitive. But the fundraising environment is dreadful, as Newsom discovered, thanks to the touch-and-go economy.

The main purpose of all that money is to gain name recognition, something increasingly difficult to acquire riding the Sacramento merry-go-round in this age of term limits. (Washington may as well be Mars for House members trying to gain statewide notice and, as Newsom found, municipal fame rarely translates statewide). Less time in office means less time to become known or achieve anything noteworthy -- which poses another problem for would-be gubernatorial candidates.

"Voters are a little chary of electing another novice," said USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "Where are you going to get that experience? In one of those six-year Assembly people who have nowhere else to go? I don't think so."

Democrats often wage heart-and-soul primary battles that lay bare their candidates' policy and personality differences. But anticipating a race against one of two extremely rich Republicans, there is strong sentiment that Brown should remain free to husband his resources and avoid the inevitable scarring that comes with an intraparty fight.

"Some are saying, 'Let's leave him alone,' " said Art Torres, a former state party chairman.

That is a change for Democrats, and one many apparently believe in.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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