The attorney general has been coy about announcing his candidacy for governor, but after the recent Democratic loss in Massachusetts, some in the party worry that time is being lost.

By Michael Rothfeld

February 3, 2010 | 6:24 p.m.

Reporting from Sacramento – Jerry Brown, the once and possibly future governor of California, is the only high-profile Democrat hoping to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger — and has long been the front-runner in voter surveys.

Yet nine months before election day, Brown’s bid to win his old job back remains in an “exploratory” phase. And some Democrats wish their candidate had heeded his own joking promises to declare his intentions “when the snows fall in the Sierras.”

Brown, 71, adapted that phrase from another former governor, his father, Pat Brown, but remained silent when white powder began piling high in the mountains late last year.

“This is not a game where you sit there and try to be cute about it — if you want to run, run,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who ran Gray Davis’ two successful races for governor and was overseeing the campaign of Brown rival Gavin Newsom until the San Francisco mayor dropped out. “It’s a big, complicated expensive race. . . . I’m not sure Jerry Brown understands what he’s getting into here. This is not 1974.”

With a spending blitz of more than $19 million, Republican billionaire Meg Whitman has narrowed Brown’s lead in the polls. And their party’s loss of the late Edward M. Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts has caused some Democrats to ask why Brown has not begun an active campaign to take one of the country’s most prominent political jobs — one he held three decades ago — back from Republican control.

Brown, who by contrast does not have a personal fortune to spend, named his campaign manager just last month, has few staff and a relatively undeveloped Web operation. He has yet to take public positions on many issues. Until he leased a space in Oakland for his headquarters late last year, he had organized strategy out of his loft with his wife, a lawyer who has been a key political advisor.

With a natural antipathy toward highly paid consultants, Brown has so far looked informally to longtime acquaintances for input, an approach some see as naive.

But Brown and others say that without a major Democratic opponent, the attorney general, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy this month, is wise to bide his time, stay out of the fray and curtail a propensity to make colorful remarks that can go awry.

Campaigns, Brown said, “are long, arduous and mistake-prone,” Brown said in a recent interview on San Francisco’s KGO-AM (810). “They go on 10 months. I can tell you that after a few months, people already start getting tired of you.”

His strategy for now is to use the built-in advantage of holding statewide office and focus on being attorney general, while raising money and saving it for later in the year. By then, voters will have zeroed in on the race, and Whitman may have been bloodied by her June primary against another wealthy Silicon Valley figure, California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

“We’re taking all the steps necessary to be very, very competitive,” said Steve Glazer, Brown’s longtime advisor and newly-appointed campaign manager.

Brown, who has more than $12 million on hand and spent less than $400,000 last year, will need his money down the stretch, the thinking goes, because he cannot finance his own campaign against whoever emerges as his opponent. Whitman has suggested she might spend $150 million.

Brown is already well known, according to voter surveys, based on two terms as governor in the 1970s, stints as secretary of state, Oakland mayor and attorney general; three failed runs for president; and one for U.S. Senate. Whitman, 53, the former EBay chief executive, is far less familiar and has been spending furiously on radio ads to introduce herself to voters. She has also been making appearances to promote her new book about values.

But she has done little else, says John Burton, the state’s Democratic Party chairman.

“She ain’t campaigning,” Burton said. “She says to her husband, ‘Pass me a pen, I have to write another check.’ ”

Some Democrats argue that Brown can’t count on his reputation, because younger voters know little about him. Robert Cruickshank, a liberal blogger, has been urging online for months that Brown spring into action and move to the political left and has said a competitive primary would strengthen him.

“These criticisms aren’t intended to tear Brown down, but instead to rattle the cage of a sleepy candidate and campaign, pointing out that their present course will likely only lead to Governor Meg Whitman,” Cruickshank wrote on Sunday.

Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles, said he had received calls after the Massachusetts election from party members worried that Brown would repeat the collapse of the Democrat there, state Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley. That is “absurd,” says Sragow, who asserted that it was too early for Brown to campaign in earnest.

“What’s really important here is that he not lose his perspective because a small number of political insiders . . . have nothing to do but talk to each other all day long,” Sragow said.

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