With History Waiting At the Finish Line, Jerry Brown Heads Into the Final Curve of the Race

Jerry Brown is shaping up as potentially the biggest Democratic winner of the 2010 elections. He is on the verge of besting the biggest-spending candidate in American history.
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"It's all coming together," former California Governor Gray Davis told me, "But we're not going to get ahead of ourselves." As we spoke on the phone late Friday morning, a few hours before the huge rally with President Barack Obama at USC, I could hear the very distinctive voice of Davis's one-time boss, Jerry Brown, in the background of Davis's Los Angeles law office.

"If we all do what we need to do," said Davis, who served as Brown's chief of staff during his first go-round as governor before launching a very consequential electoral career of his own, "we are going to prove the governorship of California is not for sale to the highest bidder."

Jerry Brown is shaping up as potentially the biggest Democratic winner of the 2010 elections. He is on the verge of not only pulling off a return to the governorship of the nation's largest state 28 years after he left it -- California's youngest ever elected governor back as its oldest governor -- but also of besting the biggest-spending candidate in American history. Brown's father, the legendary Governor Pat Brown, won two terms but lost his bid for a third to Ronald Reagan. Only Chief Justice Earl Warren has won three terms as governor of California, until now.

Jerry Brown presents his austere aesthetic, and a pledge.

After keeping the race even, with a little help from his friends, from the June primary till Labor Day weekend -- thoroughly confounding Whitman's plans and the expectations of many supposed experts, but playing out exactly as I wrote it throughout that period -- Brown began moving into a slight lead once he finally went on the air.

That slender edge moved into the high single digits when the chickens came home to roost with regard to Whitman's profound contradictions and hypocrisy on illegal immigration. Pounded incessantly by primary rival Steve Poizner, Whitman moved way to the right on illegal immigration, only to have her longtime illegal immigrant housekeeper surface at last charging the billionaire with exploitation.

But that, of course, did not end the race. All races end at the finish line, as Davis emphasized. Considering the many races he's won, he's certainly an expert. Of course, after winning a second term as governor in 2002, Davis lost office in 2003 in the dramatic California recall election, which brought action movie superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship. He and Schwarzenegger have since become friendly, which is part of a much larger story.

"The work isn't complete," Davis noted. In billionaire Meg Whitman, "Jerry is running against someone who has spent more than any person in the history of America." Through the middle of October, Whitman has spent over $163 million, by far the most for any non-presidential campaign, with well over $140 million of it from her own bulging pockets, by far the most of any candidate for any office, including the presidency. I think she'll end up spending at least $180 million.

Having beaten the previous record-holder for self-funding in a California race, when he came from behind to win the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Davis, noting Brown's Zen rope-a-dope strategy through most of the campaign, said this: "I know how frustrating it is to hear a chorus of friends tell you to do things. But I suspect Jerry will have that vindication on election night."

While the race is not over, it is looking good for Brown.

After Whitman and her associates dug themselves deeper with a series of false statements about her illegal immigration crisis, Brown demolished her in a debate at Fresno State televised on the Univision network.

Brown may have been on the verge of building an even bigger lead at that point, but the Whitman campaign, after trying a kitchen sink series of diversionary issues, released a recording of a Brown voicemail message than ran over into a discussion of Whitman's soliciting the LA police union endorsement, backing away from her supposed position on public pension reform. A female Brown associate wondered if Whitman should be typed a "whore" for selling out her position.

President Barack Obama joined Jerry Brown and Senator Barbara Boxer for a rally with nearly 40,000 people at USC.

Aided by bad initial reporting in the LA Times, driven by Whitman's claim that it was Brown himself who uttered the word, the distraction ate up a lot of media attention. My reports that the speaker was a woman gained widespread media acceptance, but the truth usually takes a while to catch up with a lie these days.

But while there was a lot of yip-yap, nothing changed in the race.

Brown is retaining the lead in the high single digits that he has had for the past couple weeks, and which is reflected in the new Public Policy Institute of California poll. There were some signs at the end of the week that his lead is increasing beyond that, but Davis was cautious when I brought that up with him.

A reliable private poll has Brown up by seven points among Californians who have already voted.

Against this backdrop, the Whitman campaign took the extraordinary but predictable step this of releasing its purported private poll, supposedly showing Whitman only three points behind Brown. As if on cue, another group, the so-called Small Business Action Committee -- actually a group almost always funded by big business that spent millions attacking Brown but would not disclose the true source of its funding -- released its own purported poll also showing Brown up by only three points.

Frankly, I've lost track of the various polling scenarios that Camp Whitman has promulgated in the last few weeks. They've all been out of phase with reality.

Just as I've lost track of the many recent anti-Brown attack ads that Whitman has thrown up there. Okay, it's seven in a 10-day period. And now she has another attempted reboot of her positive campaign, in which she spends 60 seconds speaking to camera saying she understands why people are frustrated with the choice in the governor's race.

But at this point, it's not so much about choice as it is about motivation. The motivation to express one's choice by actually casting a ballot.

Brown appeared at two big rallies the previous weekend with former President Bill Clinton. The two, who ran a very contentious race against each for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, have never been pals, but the supposed blood feud between them was non-existent, though Brown seemed more comfortable with Clinton at the second rally. In fact, when Davis left his post as Brown's gubernatorial chief of staff to run for the state assembly in Beverly Hills, Brown considered Clinton, just defeated for re-election as Arkansas governor, as his replacement.

Jerry Brown campaigned with his one-time rival, former President Bill Clinton, at UCLA.

But as big as the Clinton rallies were, they were dwarfed by Obama coming to LA.

Obama came to USC Friday afternoon to light some afterburners under a California Democratic ticket that was already doing pretty well, and appears to have succeeded. A huge crowd of nearly 40,000 came to see the president, who was joined by Brown and Senator Barbara Boxer (who's hanging on to a lead in her race), as well as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. Labor Secretary and former LA Congresswoman Hilda Solis, San Francisco District Attorney and state attorney general hopeful Kamala Harris, Assembly Speaker John Perez and others, including Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx.

Rally-goers lined up for hours and did not appear to be disappointed by what they got. Obama looked relaxed and energized. His Democratic Party fundraisers are going well, and former state Controller Steve Westly, who hosted a big Obama fundraiser at his Atherton home not far from Whitman's on Thursday night, told me that Obama was jazzed by his rally the day before in Seattle, which he viewed as one of the best of the year.

Until this one, that is.

"I don't want to fool anybody," declared Obama, "even though this is a magnificent crowd, because this will be a tough election. ... My hope was that in this moment of crisis, we could come together and both parties would put politics aside. But the Republican leaders in Washington made a different calculation. They took a look at the mess they had left me, and said, boy, this is a really big mess. Unemployment will be high for a while, and people will be angry and frustrated. So we can just sit on the sidelines, and point our fingers at Obama and say it's his fault. ...

"Their whole campaign strategy is amnesia. So you need to remember that this election is a choice between the policies that got us into this mess, and the policies that will lead us out."

When Brown spoke, prior to Obama, he delivered what he calls a "ferverino." It's a Catholic term referring to an affirmation of the faith.

Brown declared that in the California he envisions as governor, "We don't scapegoat anybody," clearly referring to the deeply confused immigration policies of his flailing opponent Whitman.

In the California he envisions, "We don't need Saudi Arabian oil or Texas gas. We have the California sun."

With the renewable energy and conservation policies Brown's championed for decades and the new green technologies he says he's determined to turn into the next economic boom for California, "We can create the green jobs of the future for everybody that's here. California has a place for all of us, not just the ones at the top."

Clinton and Brown campaigned again together at San Jose State.

"Gandhi said we have enough for our need," Brown noted, "but not enough for our greed. We're going to win this election for the least powerful, because we can empower them to be the power of the future."

"We're going to win this election," he shouted, as the throng of young Angelenos chanted "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!"

Meanwhile, as Whitman continued her incredible attempt to buy the governorship of America's largest state, Brown's campaign released campaign finance figures with eye-popping numbers of their own.

Brown took a lot of heat from the consultant class, pundits, bloggers, journos, etc. for keeping his powder dry for nearly the entirety of his campaign for governor. It was what I called his Zen rope-a-dope strategy and it worked.

And, well, Brown is firing his guns now.

After raising over $37 million for the campaign, a few million more than Anne Gust Brown, the former governor's extremely capable confidant and manager, told me would be raised, and spending less than $11 million through the end of September, all hell is breaking loose on the Brown side. His spending is up to $25.5 million through October 16, and he had another $11.6 million cash on hand then.

Brown spent $14.6 million between October 1 and October 16. And he's making these moves now with a significant lead in the polls.

Latinos are breaking heavily for Brown, moderates are breaking for Brown, liberals are solidifying for Brown, women are breaking for Brown -- despite the media distraction with the use by a female associate of the word "whore" to describe Whitman's political machinations -- and Whitman is desperately trying to prevent further major separation in the race.

So, what can go wrong for Brown?

Bill McKay, for whom Jerry Brown was a key model, goes off-message in The Candidate.

There are three general possibilities.

First, Democrats don't bother to vote. They decide that they aren't troubled enough by the cold CEO who has taken over the airwaves, or intrigued enough by Brown, to cast a ballot. That's not impossible.

Second, Whitman comes up with a very late hit, something we don't know about Brown, to save the day. That's possible, but unlikely. Voters are wise to last minute gambits, which is why such things are best done earlier to disrupt a candidacy. And while Brown has said and done many controversial things, it's part of his persona.

The third possibility is that Brown self-destructs.

A Republican consultant who knows Brown told me yesterday, "You know, I like the guy, but he could always pull the pin on the grenade and scream 'Allahu Akbar!'"

A colorful thought. But for that to happen, Brown, who has been very disciplined throughout -- a few gaffes or seeming gaffes aside -- would have to lose focus at the crucial moment.

To be sure, he doesn't always have the longest attention span. I remember when Brown spent the summer of 1985 at a ranch owned by a friend of mine whom I'd recruited for the presidential campaign of Brown's Yale Law classmate, Gary Hart. He was there to write a book about his experiences and thoughts.

I teased Brown then that he would never concentrate long enough to write a book, even a book about himself. Especially a book about himself, actually. And he didn't.

But Jerry Brown, who is a good writer and a very notable phrasemaker, doesn't have to spend three months focusing on and building upon a blank page. Or in his case, even in 1985, a blank screen. (Notwithstanding a lot of silly commentary about him supposedly not getting technology, Brown began using personal computers in the 1970s and was the first politician I knew who used e-mail.)

No, what Brown has to do is what he knows very well how to do: Stay focused and in the moment in the tumult of a political campaign he's planned nearly to a tee for a little more than a week longer.

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