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Is there a governor of California here?

Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner -- the undeclared, the overdog and the invisible.

March 01, 2010|By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine

One hundred days before the June 8 primary election, the race for governor of California is taking shape, but the outcome won't be clear without answers to three key questions.

Debate: A March 1 Op-Ed article on the California governor's race incorrectly reported that only one of the Republican primary debates between Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner will be televised. Both the March 15 and May 2 events will receive live television coverage. —

Jerry Brown: A March 1 Op-Ed article referred to Jerry Brown as the youngest governor of California. He was not. John Downey, who served as lieutenant governor, was 32 when he assumed the governorship in 1860, after his predecessor moved to the U.S. Senate. Brown was 36 when he was first elected governor in 1974. —

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's announcement last month that she would not run for governor leaves Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown as the Democrats' only major candidate -- though he hasn't formally announced that he's running. Republicans still have a two-person contest, although former EBay chief Meg Whitman is overwhelming her rival, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, by all conventional political measures -- polls, money and campaign organization.

At a time when a huge majority of voters say California is on the wrong track and express deep anxieties about their economic prospects, the crucial challenge for all three candidates is to demonstrate they have the ideas and abilities to lead state government in helping to improve economic conditions. For this trio, that task is especially daunting, because front-runners Brown and Whitman represent perhaps the two most reviled cultural icons of the moment -- the career politician and the career CEO -- while Poizner splits the difference, with a foot in both worlds. Here is a look at the fundamental question for each candidate.

Which Jerry Brown will show up?

When Feinstein called Brown on Feb. 17 to say she'd firmly decided not to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, his first reaction was disappointment: He was kind of hoping she would run, Brown said, so he didn't have to.

The once and maybe future governor's reaction, as reported by the Orange County Register, was no doubt a joke. But Freud never sleeps. Brown's hesitation to jump into the governor's race with enthusiasm and energy reflects an ambivalence that has been a hallmark of his political persona. Facing a March 12 deadline for formally declaring his candidacy, Brown has yet to articulate a clear rationale for why he wants the job. He recently began a much-panned speech to supporters with this telling equivocation: "I was thinking tonight; I was trying to figure out that if I did announce, what the hell would I say?"

At 71, Brown is attempting to retake the office he held at 36, which would give him the historic distinction of serving as both California's youngest and oldest governor. His decades of political shape-shifting provide him a host of campaign memes and identities from which to choose. What strategic message will he articulate? Will voters see the fiery prairie populist, shaking his fist at banks and corporate interests? The savvy, world-weary work hand, who understands better than anyone how to repair the broken machinery of government? Or the avuncular senior statesman, whose age-foreshortened ambitions position him to make painful choices other politicians cannot?

Brown's played out the string as long as he can. It's time for him to explain why he wants to be governor and what he would do in office. Again.

Does Meg Whitman have a glass jaw?

Republican Whitman has shrewdly positioned herself as the GOP front-runner, with an elusive and chimerical strategy consisting of tightly controlled campaign events and high-profile national media interviews -- and avoidance of debates with rivals and of no-holds-barred interviews with most California reporters. And she has spent more money than any previous candidate at this point in a California race.

Having already spent $39 million, much of it from her own personal fortune, Whitman has soared in the polls. But she now faces increasing questions and political pressures about her lack of transparency and unwillingness to face the humiliating rituals of media and public inspection to which political candidates routinely submit to win the privilege of governance.

Take the current flap over her refusal to date to release her tax returns: Ignoring the calls of a Democrat-affiliated campaign committee, she has resisted making a full disclosure of her personal financial data. This controversy follows earlier disputes over her refusal to debate Poizner -- she has finally consented to one televised encounter before the primary -- and her rejection of most substantive interview requests from state-based journalists.

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