By Steven Harmon
San Jose Mercury News
Posted: 01/20/2013 06:57:46 AM PST
Updated: 01/20/2013 06:57:57 AM PST

SACRAMENTO — As he prepares to deliver the third State of the State speech of his third term on Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown will be peering down from a lofty political perch that he may never ascend to again.

Even this late in his political travels, the 74-year-old Brown can safely be called a political phenomenon. He’s fresh off producing what many are calling a “miracle” deficit-free budget only two years after inheriting $27 billion in red ink. And the budget came only two months after he shocked the political world with his triumphant tax-hike ballot measure, Proposition 30.

Brown now has a command of the Capitol stage as only a handful of California politicians — one of them his father, Gov. Pat Brown — have enjoyed. And it’s a good time for the son to have the wind at his back, as he prepares to push through a slew of major projects, ranging from a bullet train to a huge new water project.

“It’s been a long time since any governor has been riding this high,” said Ethan Rarick, director of UC Berkeley’s Matsui Center at the Institute of Governmental Studies. “I’d say that Jerry Brown 2.0 has disproved skeptics every step of the way. If the economy goes south, they’ll come back. But for now, it’s hard to see how you could’ve done better than he’s done.”

Since he first appeared on the political scene in the mid-1970s, Brown has been a darling of the national media, if only for the quirky quote. Of late, though, he’s viewed more as a sober elder statesman who might have the answer to the country’s fiscal problems while invoking Greek philosophers and throwing out Latin phrases.

“Is what you did transferable to the national government?” Brown was asked in a PBS interview last week.

Los Angeles Times editorial-page columnist Paul Whitefield even urged Brown to run for president, arguing that the “Moonbeam” tag from his first two terms decades ago no longer applies. “He’s now the sage of Sacramento,” Whitefield opined.

“If he were 10 years younger, they’d be talking about him along with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as contenders for 2016,” said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “The great irony is that he ran for president twice during his first time as governor but never had anywhere near the political capital he has now.”

The governor now occupies an enviable “strategic position,” as he calls it, a place and time that confers credibility and momentum as he wades into treacherous waters.

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