Jerry Brown, second from left. An aide was recorded making a crude remark about his opponent.

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By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: October 8, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO — On Wednesday night, at a party held for young San Francisco Democrats, Jerry Brown took the microphone and gave the kind of stirring, if somewhat eccentric, speech that has defined his 40 years in politics.

“California is not only a state of place, it’s a state of imagination,” Mr. Brown said. “This is the place of Hollywood movies, it’s the place of rocket ships, it’s the place of wind machines. It’s the place of all sorts of ideas,” Mr. Brown riffed, quickly building in a crescendo, saying that California politics were “screwed up” and broken.

“But if we can summon up the spontaneity and the creativity in California,” he said, “we can transform what is a breakdown into a breakthrough. And that’s why I’m running for governor.”

The crowd roared in approval. But just a day later, it was a different kind of episode that would raise questions about Mr. Brown’s campaign, after The Los Angeles Times posted a muddy audio recording on Thursday night in which a campaign aide is heard calling his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, a “whore.”

The Brown campaign apologized soon after, and the political fallout from the comment — which Ms. Whitman’s camp called “an appalling and unforgivable smear” — is uncertain. It is not clear whether Mr. Brown even heard the remark, or acknowledged it, but the episode is serving as a reminder for Democrats of the sometimes vexing dichotomy of Mr. Brown’s long career: a politician prone to both dreamy idealism and cold pragmatism, capable of being both poetic and profane in the same sentence and often surrounded with starry-eyed do-gooders and the occasional fringe character.

“He is most definitely not the blow-dry-haired, antiseptic, focus-group-tested candidate that most are used to in this day and age in politics,” said Christopher Lehane, a Democratic consultant. “And that cuts both ways.”

A serious student and literal son of California government — his father, Edmund G. Brown Sr., was governor from 1959 to 1967 — Jerry Brown, now 72, has worked to throw off a past image as the bad boy who dated Linda Ronstadt and earned the sobriquet “Governor Moonbeam” (for his unorthodox political outlook) during his own two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983.

Nor is it the first gaffe to strike the current campaign. In June, Mr. Brown compared Ms. Whitman’s advertising blitz to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, after meeting a local radio reporter during a jog in the Oakland hills near his home. (Mr. Brown later said that he believed his remarks, which the reporter blogged, were off the record.)

Mr. Brown, of course, has always seemed to relish being seen as a little bit out there, something in clear view in what may be his last campaign, this time against Ms. Whitman, a billionaire who has largely kept to her talking points.

“I think from the beginning Brown has tried to turn his weakness into an asset,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a conservative political consultant. “The quirkiness that once was ‘Governor Moonbeam’ is being woven into the narrative of the campaign, in that she is at all times very scripted, and Jerry strays.”

But the recorded conversation also showed another side of Mr. Brown: a political player with an often brusque approach to political adversity. It was apparently taped in early September when Mr. Brown called a Los Angeles-based police union to ask for its support and left a voice-mail message. After the call is completed, Mr. Brown tries to hang up, but the recording continues. Mr. Brown’s voice rises as he worries aloud that he might lose the group’s endorsement to Ms. Whitman, amid the union’s concerns about his position on public employee pensions.

“Do we want to put an ad out?” Mr. Brown is heard to say. “I’ve been warned if I crack down on pensions, I will be — that they’ll go to Whitman, and that’s where they’ll go because they know Whitman will give ’em, will cut them a deal, but I won’t.”

Then an unidentified person speaks, saying: “What about saying she’s a whore?”

There is a jumble of sound, before Mr. Brown is heard again. “Well, I’m going to use that,” he says. “It proves you’ve cut a secret deal to protect the pensions.”

On Friday, Sterling Clifford, a campaign spokesman, said that Mr. Brown was not agreeing with or that he even recognized the “whore” comment, but was addressing the issue of whether Ms. Whitman “was currying favor with the union.” The campaign also said it was working to determine who made the comment.

Mr. Lehane, the Democratic strategist, said that the remarks might cause Mr. Brown to “lose a news cycle or two,” but that it could actually play into his favor if he is seen as not caving in to unions, which have contributed millions to his campaign. “The bigger takeaway is that he’s not your average politician,” he said. “And I think that’s served him well over time.”

But in such a tight race — and with questions still lingering about Ms. Whitman’s treatment of an illegal immigrant once in her employ — others said that the question of Mr. Brown’s maturity could alienate voters, and particularly women, already wary of his rough edges.

“There’s a line which women find totally unacceptable, and most men, when you’re discussing a woman’s character,” said Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “And whoever said this, this is way over that line.”

She added that such language also raised questions about those close to Mr. Brown. “And who you surround yourself with is an extraordinary statement about who one is,” Ms. Budson said.

That said, Mr. Brown has abandoned more controversial advisers, including Jacques Barzaghi, a gurulike figure whose black-on-black wardrobe was a constant in Mr. Brown’s camp for decades. Mr. Brown’s spokesman said Mr. Barzaghi was fired in 2004 while Mr. Brown was Oakland’s mayor after allegations arose about improper behavior by Mr. Barzaghi away from the office.

A longtime bachelor, in 2005 Mr. Brown married Anne Gust, the former chief administrative officer of the Gap, who serves as a fund-raiser and informal adviser on the campaign. In a debate last month, Mr. Brown made light of a question about another possible presidential bid (he ran in 1976, 1980 and 1992).

“I now have a wife, I come home at night,” he said. “I don’t try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California.”

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