From Sacramento — Jerry Brown's problem isn't just that he doesn't have enough money to advertise a campaign message. It's also that he doesn't have a very strong message.
The Democratic attorney general's basic pitch to voters about why he should be returned to the governor's office after an absence of 28 years is that unlike his potential Republican opponent, he won't need training wheels.
But to go where?
Brown's main message was best articulated in his web-based announcement of candidacy March 2:
"Our state is in serious trouble and the next governor must have the preparation and the knowledge and the know-how to get California working again. That's what I offer."
Then he took some indirect shots at his probable GOP opponent, former EBay chief Meg Whitman, and at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger:
"Some people say that . . . we need to go out and find an outsider who knows virtually nothing about state government. Well, we tried that and it doesn't work. . . . We need someone with insider's knowledge, but an outsider's mind."
OK, but to do what?
Brown continued: "At this stage of my life" -- age 72 with four decades spent mostly in government and politics-- "I'm prepared to focus on nothing else but fixing this state I love."
But how exactly?
He promised "no smoke and mirrors on the budget . . . no new taxes unless you the people vote for them . . . [and] to downsize state government . . . and return decisions" to local governments.
That was more than six weeks ago and there still aren't any specifics. Don't bother looking for them on his campaign website, www.jerrybrown.org.
Brown has always rebelled against political convention. He disdains "white papers" and "10-point plans," regarding them as poll-driven, boring and practically meaningless.
You won't catch him making a PowerPoint presentation or, with rare exception, even speaking from a text. He's a talented enough orator to get away with it.
He's also burdened with the knowledge that rhetoric and promises are easy, but they set up a politician for failure once elected. Action is becoming increasingly difficult in a state government polarized by ideologies, handicapped by voter restraints and mistrusted by the public.
And superimposed over everything in this unique gubernatorial race is the astronomical funding advantage of billionaire Whitman. She already has poured $59 million of her own money into the campaign for nonstop TV or radio advertising since last Labor Day. And she's prepared to spend whatever it takes.
In polls, Whitman is running at least 40 points ahead of her multimillionaire Republican primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, and slightly ahead of Brown in a mock November matchup.
Brown has raised roughly $15 million and is hoarding it for the fall. Only political junkies are paying attention now anyway, he tells nervous Democrats. Don't panic. Let the Republican fight play out.
But it already has, for all practical purposes. And Brown is fortunate that Whitman still is attacking Poizner and going easy on her unarmed prospective Democratic rival.
However, it doesn't take much money -- and it shouldn't take Brown any -- to tell anyone interested what he thinks California should look like in five or 10 years.
"Jerry needs to be very focused on the future and what California needs to become," says veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. "But he needs to articulate that vision of the future by drawing on his experience and using it as a reference point."
As in: This is what I want to do. And this is why I'm confident I can do it.
Assuming he knows.
Brown will have the perfect opportunity to articulate such a vision at a state Democratic convention Saturday in Los Angeles. It'll cost him only the airfare from Oakland to L.A.
He could strongly defend Schwarzenegger's program to reduce global-warming greenhouse gas emissions, under attack from the governor's business buddies and the entire GOP, including Whitman. Oil interests are trying to repeal the ambitious plan with a November ballot initiative.
Brown also could orate passionately about how he intends to stimulate the growth of green industries, including alternative energy. Call it a jobs program. He has an unassailable record on that issue from his past gubernatorial stint.
And he could pull "a Feinstein" to assure middle-of-the-road folks that he's not a stereotype liberal.
At a 1990 Democratic convention in L.A., then-gubernatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein reaffirmed her support of capital punishment and was loudly booed. Film of the episode fit nicely into one of her fall campaign ads at a time when Californians strongly supported the death penalty.
Brown could score similar points with swing voters by telling the Democratic activists that California must pare back its retirement and medical benefits for public employees. He does seem to believe that, even if leery of the issue because he'll need strong union backing in the fall.
But what better candidate to tackle the bankrupting problem of unsustainable public employee benefits? He's the governor who empowered state workers and teachers in the '70s by granting them collective bargaining rights.
Brown is offering wisdom and know-how. He also needs to add ideas and vision.