Jerry Brown / (Courtesy – Reuters)

California Dems worry that gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown isn’t ready for the campaign trail. Reuters


By MAGGIE HABERMAN | 6/23/10 4:56 AM EDT

California Democrats are starting to worry that gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown — who hasn’t had a truly competitive election in three decades — isn’t ready for the 21st-century campaign trail.

Since the general election kicked off two weeks ago, Brown — the state attorney general and former governor with a well-known penchant for micromanaging all aspects of his campaigns — has made news for all the wrong reasons, while motoring along without any evidence that he is assembling a basic infrastructure for a statewide race.

He likened Republican rival Meg Whitman’s free-spending abilities to Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, continued to give the story oxygen by admitting he said it in a radio interview a week later and then told reporters that he wouldn’t give details about his budget plans so that he could avoid being attacked.

At the same time, several California Democrats close to the race say they’re concerned the 72-year-old Brown hasn’t done enough to start framing his own message against Whitman, the multimillionaire former eBay CEO who’s cruising toward a $150 million self-funded campaign tab, or to pivot toward general election necessities such as field operations.

“They are nowhere near where they need to be at this point,” said a Democratic operative involved in the race.

“Are people starting to have a sense of anxiety? I think that’s fair to say,” another operative said.

Rather than spend resources, the Brown campaign has thus far, by all accounts, held onto them, the better to compete against the Whitman spending juggernaut and the independent expenditure efforts that will work on her behalf.

But the flip side is that, according to several sources, Brown hasn’t started putting in place a strong voter-outreach effort or turned his attention to shoring up his standing among Hispanic voters, who make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the California electorate.

Meanwhile, Whitman is working overtime to counter the damage she caused herself with a rightward tack on immigration — she’s “tough as nails” was the line from her ads — after primary rival Steve Poizner forced her to take a hard line.

She has launched an aggressive paid-media effort in Spanish-language markets, and if she shaves pieces off Brown’s tally among different voting blocs, it could have an impact in a close race.

“I do believe this is a campaign that will be close enough so that it will come down to who runs the better campaign — and oftentime that means who plays error-free ball,” said California-based Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, though he was quick to quip that Brown “has won election more times than Meg Whitman has voted.”

“The room for [error] when your opponent is going to spend $200 million is very small,” Lehane added. “Thus, I think Jerry can run a quirky, back-to-the-future type of campaign whose very processes help define him as the anti-establishment candidate who is on the side of everyday people.”

But, he added, “if, on the other hand, he creates opportunities that Meg can quickly exploit by putting it up as a statewide TV buy, that becomes more of a challenge.”

Republicans are quickly seizing on the sense of inactivity to convey a sense of creakiness.

“A lot has changed since Brown was last governor — like the invention of movable-type printing, the Internet, cell phones and the end of the Cold War — but we are not taking anything for granted,” said Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

“Meg is prepared to counter his blast-fax offensive and Burma-Shave billboard blitzes,” he said. “We are also on the lookout for a serious snail-mail pen-pal campaign that we are hearing he and the unions might mount. But I am most concerned about the reports of his mass-production of campaign buttons. Now, that has me losing sleep.”

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said suggestions that the campaign isn’t ramping up are falsehoods sparked by the AG’s no-drama effort.

“I understand there are a lot of people who are accustomed to a more gossipy campaign,” he said. “One result of Jerry’s ability to keep the campaign under control is, there’s not that kind of insider gossip out there, and it makes people think nothing’s happening. All of these things are happening, and the pieces will drop into place publicly when it’s time [for them] to drop into place publicly.”

The Democratic Governors Association, which is expected to invest in the race as an independent expenditure, also shored up Brown.

“Look, if I were the RGA, I would be depressed, too,” said spokeswoman Emily DeRose. “It’s stunning that after dumping $91 million, Meg Whitman still can’t take the lead in this race. At some point, they will face the cold, hard fact that Californians don’t want a manufactured candidate whose only asset is the number of zeros in her bank accounts.”

Still, Democrats’ sense of concern is becoming palpable.

Brown remains the favorite — he has 100 percent name recognition after serving two terms as governor in the 1970s and 1980s, and no other big-name Democrat dared take him on this year because, as one Democratic strategist put it, “no one else was going to beat him in a primary.”

But while he became attorney general in 2006 after serving as mayor of Oakland, his last truly competitive race was for a U.S. Senate seat in 1982 against Pete Wilson — now the chairman of Whitman’s campaign.

The world of campaigning has changed a lot since then — candidates are expected to realize they are on the record all the time in the era of blogging, YouTube journalism and live-mike pickups.

And the way in which candidates campaign statewide in the Internet era and maintain a sense of voter contact — especially in a massive state like California, where there is an impossible amount of ground to cover — has also changed. Brown, according to several sources, hasn’t yet shown signs of adjusting.

Mistakes like chatting freely with a radio reporter on a jogging trail and invoking the word “Nazi” was a major slip — made worse by the fact that Brown has continued to talk about it in interviews.

One strategist working on the race and sympathetic to Brown said the candidate’s team erred in opting to spend the months between March — when Whitman began faltering as Poizner pushed hard on the immigration issue — and the GOP primary two weeks ago, letting the Republicans duke it out rather than preparing a ground game or pushing a strong message against both candidates.

“These are just certain basics,” the strategist said. “No one’s asking them to do rocket science. Just certain building blocks of a campaign.”

Brown is a notorious micromanager who has gone so far as to brag about co-writing ad scripts, according to several sources. His inner sanctum is tiny and includes his wife and a few advisers, and he tends to keep his own counsel.

That type of strong sense of a political compass can be effective, but it can also mean, as one strategist put it, “there is no one there to pull his coat.”

Another Democratic strategist involved in the race said, “Part of it is that Jerry Brown believes that he’s Jerry Brown and he’s real and authentic and that people will see through Whitman’s spending. It doesn’t really work that way.”

Whitman’s spending is particularly noteworthy in Spanish-language media, where the free press has blasted her over her immigration stand in the primary.

Still, she’s following a model that many likened to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s early spending in his first successful race in 2001: investing heavily out of the gate in Spanish-language paid media.

Bloomberg split the Hispanic vote down the middle with his white Democratic rival — an astonishing feat for a Republican in New York City at the time.

While Whitman won’t split or even come close to splitting the Hispanic vote with Brown, who has a strong relationship with the state’s Latino voters, if she can siphon off some voters, it could make a difference.

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