Brown’s gubernatorial bid a blast from past

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He can no longer comb his black hair — he went bald years ago — and he finally junked the beat-up blue Plymouth that once was his trademark ride. His days of dating celebrities are over; in fact, he gave up his decades-long reign as California’s most confirmed bachelor three years ago when he married for the first time.

Much has changed for Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. in the 31 years since he last ran for governor of California. Except that he’s running for governor again.

At age 71, Mr. Brown is seeking to pull off one of the more audacious second acts in recent political history with his highly anticipated 2010 gubernatorial bid. If and when he announces his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, which could happen at any time, he would be seeking a third term that would begin 28 years after the end of his second.

The math works only because he began his career as a political wunderkind.

In 1974, Mr. Brown, whose father governed the state in the 1960s, was elected governor of California at the age of 36, ushered into office at the height of the post-Watergate backlash as the candidate of new energy, good government and fresh ideas. He was a full generation younger than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who had retired that year to pursue a presidential bid.

Running as the hip, young face of the future is no longer plausible, so Mr. Brown appears ready to reinvent himself as the candidate of experience. In his speeches and other public remarks, he often refers to his tenure in office from 1975 to ‘83 as a kind of golden age when the economy was strong, crime was low and California’s public schools were regarded as among the best in the nation.

“Things have gone downhill since I left Sacramento, big time,” he told Democrats at the 2008 Democratic state convention.

It’s a message that may be reaching voters already, given the state’s historic economic crisis. Polls taken in the past month show Mr. Brown consistently leading San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in head-to-head match-ups for the Democratic gubernatorial nod.

Two polls released last week found Mr. Brown ahead of his 42-year-old rival both statewide and in San Francisco. A survey taken by Sacramento’s Moore Methods showed Mr. Brown leading Mr. Newsom among state voters by a margin of 49 percent to 20 percent.

Another poll, taken Aug. 15 through 18 by David Binder Research of 423 likely Democratic voters in San Francisco, showed Mr. Brown with a comfortable edge over the mayor, 51 percent to 34 percent, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Mr. Newsom, who has officially declared his candidacy for governor, also can’t match Mr. Brown’s commanding fundraising lead.

The Republicans aren’t exactly conceding the 2010 race. Even though Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity is dropping, the Republican Party has three strong candidates touting their credentials as economic problem-solvers in former Rep. Tom Campbell, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay President Meg Whitman.

Political analysts note that Mr. Brown’s early lead probably can be attributed to his virtually universal name recognition — there are few in California who don’t know him, either from his previous career or his current position as attorney general. One wild card: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, who would become the instant front-runner if she entered the race.

“There are two types of Democratic supporters: You have older voters who remember him fondly as governor in the 1970s, but a lot more are interested because of what he’s accomplished more recently,” said California Republican analyst Dan Schnur. “Every Democrat in California knows Jerry Brown for different reasons.”

At the same time, Mr. Schnur said, “at this point the election is all about name recognition.”

Still, the early polling is impressive for the man once jeered as “Governor Moonbeam” and whose political obituary was written repeatedly throughout 1980s and 1990s. He tried for years to persuade voters to send him to Washington, running unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, 1980 and 1992. He sought the Senate seat vacated by California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa in 1982 but lost badly to Republican Pete Wilson.

After a stint as a radio talk-show host in Berkeley, he was elected mayor of Oakland, an unenviable post in a down-and-out city that hardly seemed befitting a former governor.

But Mr. Brown used the job to restart his political career, reshaping his image as the Catholic-Zen philosopher boy-king into that of a hands-on problem-solver. He became a visible and energetic promoter of economic redevelopment and downtown renewal, even when it meant crossing his liberal allies with support for charter schools and the military.

Elected state attorney general in 2006, Mr. Brown has managed to combine his longtime environmental agenda with a tough-on-crime, consumer-rights stance that could appeal to voters across the political spectrum. Not that he could be described as conservative: He refused to defend Proposition 8, the anti-gay-marriage measure that passed in 2008, even though the attorney general traditionally defends successful ballot initiatives from legal challenges.

Mr. Brown declined to comment on his plans, saying he isn’t doing political interviews at this time. But he hinted at the future on his “Jerry Brown 2010” Web site in a reference to his famously Picasso-esque governor’s portrait.

“My official portrait as governor was quite controversial and the legislature refused to hang it,” Mr. Brown said in an entry called “25 Random Things About Me.” “My father said if I didn’t get a new one, I could never run again. It is now hanging and I am still running.”

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