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Capitol Journal: Jerry Brown has to make his case soon

Voters need to be told why a political old-timer like him would be better than neophyte Meg Whitman

August 30, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — There was a blond sitting at a Lake Tahoe waterfront bar recently who had Jerry Brown's problem nailed.

"Millions of Democrats are waiting for a reason to vote for Jerry Brown and he isn't giving them one," she said, interrupting the tortured analyses spewing from me and some other political junkies.

The woman didn't want to be identified by name. But, OK, she's my wife. And she's usually right about these things, largely because she has a normal life outside politics and punditry.

I'd amend her assessment to include not only Democrats but also independents and moderate Republicans. They're all waiting for the Democratic candidate to get a move on and finally tell them why he'd be a better governor than Republican political novice Meg Whitman.

They shouldn't have to wait much longer.

We're approaching Labor Day, traditional kickoff of November election races.

Never mind that Whitman has been running hard for a year and has already spent an unprecedented $104 million of her fortune, most of it on TV ads. Brown has been hoarding his privately donated money — he has stashed around $25 million — and has said he intends to begin running TV spots after Labor Day. He'll spend the holiday weekend stumping the state.

So we'll soon see what Jerry Brown still has to offer at 72, after having served two terms as governor a few decades ago and lately as Oakland mayor and state attorney general.

Brown gave us a broad hint of his pitch at a campaign stop in San Diego last week: "Everything I've done in my life has prepared me for this moment in time, to do what I can to protect the state I love."

But voters may want to hear a little more about exactly what Brown thinks he can — and intends to — do.

Brown campaign manager Steve Glazer says the candidate will emphasize his "independence, experience and know-how to get California working again."

But, as Whitman strategist Mike Murphy points out: "This is not a year to go to the voters and say, 'I am a 40-year career liberal politician.' "

One of Brown's tasks will be to dispel the "liberal tax and spend" lie. Yes, Brown is a cultural and environmental liberal. But as governor, he was a skinflint. If anything, he didn't invest enough in highways and universities, a mistake he now admits.

Brown never raised general taxes and he actually reduced the income tax. He twice vetoed pay increases for state employees.

But Brown can set the record straight himself if he cares to.

Unless he actually can't. Maybe voters aren't in the mood to listen.

"Voters are so angry and cynical that if a candidate tries to tell them, 'I've done all these great things,' they just say, 'I don't believe you. And if you did, why is the state so screwed up?' " says Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who is not involved in the race.

What does Brown need to do? "Stop making jokes about his age and beat the crap out of Meg Whitman," Tulchin advises.

Beat up the billionaire, he says, for her questionable activities when she ran EBay, including cozy deals with Goldman Sachs. Then there's that embarrassing record of her rarely voting before deciding to become governor.

Labor unions that support Brown already have been attacking Whitman in TV spots.

Democratic ad maker Bill Carrick, who's not involved in the campaign, agrees with Tulchin about the political effect of voter grumpiness.

"The sad reality is that I don't think voters are going to listen to positive messages," Carrick says. "They're ticked off. They don't want to hear politicians say, 'I'm going to create more jobs, balance the budget, fix the schools.' They don't believe any of that."

But don't the voters want to hear specifics?

"That's what they always say," Carrick asserts. "The truth is that voters who are in the middle and not ideological will decide based on who they think can best do the job, who's got the skill. But that judgment is easily influenced by whether somebody has been discredited or not."

Discredited as in lied about and beaten up.

Both sides agree and most polls confirm that the race is a toss-up.

It's a Democratic state — Dems outnumber Reps roughly 44% to 31% — but it's a Republican year. "Decline to state" independents — 20% of the electorate — will be key.

"Right now it looks like a very big Republican win on the national level," Carrick concedes. "And it'll do damage here."

Each side claims to be happy as a clam: Brown because he has held his fire all summer and still is standing despite the Whitman bombardment. Whitman because she has barrels of ammo left and the GOP troops are inspired.

I figure Brown has two, maybe three weeks to kick it in gear, to start energizing Democrats and convincing independents.

"The second week after Labor Day is when voting really gets formulated," says Democratic pollster David Binder, who isn't part of the Brown campaign.

There'll be televised debates Sept. 28 and Oct. 12; also Oct. 2 if Brown agrees. After that, the result will be all but baked. Many voters already will be casting absentee ballots.

The only certainty now is that there'll be an annoying barrage of attack ads from both sides.

And the best reason to vote for Jerry Brown — or Meg Whitman — is likely to be that one is considered the lesser of two bad choices. Pretty pathetic. And not really what the blond at the bar had in mind.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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