By David Siders
Published: Sunday, Jul. 18, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A
The question keeps coming up for Jerry Brown: Can he compete with a self-funded billionaire and, if so, when will he start?
“Can you beat Meg Whitman if she’s going to outspend you 10-to-1, have staffs 10 times as big as you?” Chris Matthews asked the Democratic gubernatorial nominee recently on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”
The questioning was similar at a campaign stop in Los Angeles, and again Wednesday in San Diego. On Thursday on “The Kudlow Report,” Larry Kudlow told Brown, “The media in California is all calling you the invisible man.”
While Whitman, the Republican nominee, has put more than $90 million of her own money into the race and is blanketing TV, Brown is relying on ads funded by his union allies to carry him through the summer. On the air, the candidate himself is nowhere to be seen.
But with 15 weeks until Election Day, it is not clear he has any choice.
“There are all these armchair quarterbacks with all of their analysis. To me, they’re saying, ‘OK, Jerry should do … ‘ What? I don’t get what the strategic alternative is,” Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said. “What’s the other option here? Spend all your money and be out of money by Labor Day?”
In early summer, the state’s undecided voters – those at play in an election – typically flirt with the major-party nominees, choosing one when moved by an overwhelming campaign narrative or by some major event, experts say. That could be a debate or a scandal, or a crisis a candidate reacts to in an appealing or unappealing way.
What is critical is to be on TV at that pivotal moment, said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist. That could be in August or September, or later, when absentee ballots are mailed.
So far there has not been any contest-changing event. In its early stages, the race still is fairly routine: Whitman plays ads attacking Brown and tussles with the California Nurses Association, unions attack Whitman on Brown’s behalf, and both candidates court Latino voters.
“The most interesting thing from the campaign that I see is that it hasn’t really developed,” Democratic campaign consultant Kam Kuwata said.
But Brown’s absence from the airwaves has allowed Whitman an early opening, and for that reason some Democrats are concerned.
The former eBay CEO’s ad blitz has contributed to, if not been fully responsible for, an erosion of Brown’s favorability rating from last year.
Her advertising on Spanish language TV and radio has helped Whitman gain ground with Latino voters, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, according to a Field Poll.
“The problem is whether the constant drumbeat from Meg Whitman puts Jerry’s image in an increasingly negative light over the summer,” said Bruce Cain, a University of California, Berkeley, political science professor and director of the University of California Washington Center. “Basically, if he doesn’t answer her charges, then he’s going to be in the hole, a fairly deep hole.”
Brown, the former governor, ran a far different campaign when he was bidding for re-election in 1978. He had ample money and his campaign was highly visible.
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