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2010 line forms for governorship

Rothfeld is a Times staff writer.

The long campaign is over. And so a new one begins: the race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

A crop of would-be candidates is already preparing -- some openly, others behind the scenes -- with two years until the state’s next big election.

One, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, is a rancher; at least one, former EBay chief Meg Whitman, is a billionaire; a third, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, is known across the nation as a champion of same-sex marriage.

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Several have run and lost for governor before, and one, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, has been governor already. Only one thing seems certain: The next governor of California will not be a movie star.

Barring a dramatic turnaround, he or she will inherit the same challenge that Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vowed to conquer in the recall election of 2003: controlling a state budget that is perennially off-kilter, reining in borrowing and managing the pull-and-push of taxes and spending.

“Have we made any progress at all in five or six years?” asked Steve Poizner, the state’s Republican insurance commissioner, sitting outside a Borders bookstore in his hometown of Los Gatos late last month. “No! I mean, I can’t believe we’re back to the same place we were . . . with massive budget deficits, and now we have a declining economy and jobs are leaving at an even more rapid clip.”

The wild card is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 75, widely considered to be the state’s most prominent Democrat, who friends say is debating whether to enter the race or remain an influential figure in Washington. She would vault to the head of the field, analysts say, but may be reluctant to leave the Senate with her party newly dominant in favor of a campaign to run a deficit-plagued state and deal with a polarized Legislature.

“The question she will have to resolve for herself is whether she wants to give that very powerful, very important job up,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles.

Feinstein, who declined to be interviewed, indicated her interest to the state’s political class by dipping a toe into state issues this fall. Along with Whitman and Brown, she helped defeat Proposition 5, which would have diverted drug offenders from prison into treatment.

She campaigned unsuccessfully against Proposition 8, the initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage. But it is Newsom, her fellow San Franciscan and Democrat, who could be most hampered in more conservative parts of the state by his close identification with the losing side of that initiative.

“It characterizes him as a San Francisco liberal,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political strategist.

Newsom, 41, youthful and dynamic, helped trigger the debate over same-sex marriage in 2004 when he authorized marriage licenses for homosexual couples. He presided over gay and lesbian weddings and gave the speech that became notorious when backers of Proposition 8 ran a TV ad with a video of a wild-eyed Newsom crowing that there would be gay marriages “whether you like it or not.”

Speaking to reporters on the day after the election, Newsom said he was not concerned about the issue’s potential effect on his career.

“It’s trivial and irrelevant,” the mayor said. “It was never about me. It’s not about politicians. This is about people. It’s about real human beings.”

Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University, agreed that video of Newsom’s “Howard Dean moment” could hurt him in a general election, but he said the mayor’s same-sex marriage stand might boost him in a Democratic primary.

“It could even be a badge of honor,” Gerston said.

So far, Poizner, Newsom, Garamendi and former Republican congressman Tom Campbell have formed exploratory committees to raise money for the race. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 55, has not ruled out a run, but he must first win back his current job in March.

“All his energy is focused on running for reelection,” said Villaraigosa consultant Ace Smith.

Former California Controller Steve Westly, 52, who lost a Democratic primary in the 2006 governor’s race, co-chaired President-elect Barack Obama’s California campaign this year and worked with Schwarzenegger on Proposition 11, to overhaul the way legislative districts are drawn. He said he’d decide whether to run again after the first of the year.

On the Republican side, while party primary voters are generally conservative, the potential candidates so far are largely moderate. Whitman, who lives in Atherton, registered as Republican only a year ago, previously listing herself as “decline to state.”

Whitman, 52, has been researching state issues; she hired a Sacramento public relations team and retained Steve Schmidt, the Republican political strategist who ran Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign and managed Schwarzenegger’s reelection bid in 2006. Although she has never held office, with a net worth between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion, Whitman could finance her own campaign.

Poizner, 51, a wealthy former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, says he is “pro-choice” but would like to reduce the number of abortions and opposes same-sex marriage. He takes a hard line against tax increases, which may appeal to party conservatives displeased with Schwarzenegger’s embrace of them.

Poizner said Schwarzenegger had “gotten the reform movement started,” but added, “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Campbell, 56, spent 10 years in Congress, was briefly Schwarzenegger’s finance director and has taught at Stanford University and UC Berkeley. He praised the governor for being “not a partisan man,” and said his priority would be creating new jobs and educating young people.

“I am concerned that the next generation of Californians may not be trained adequately,” he said.

For Democrats, the question is: Who may be liberal enough to prevail in a primary, yet moderate enough to win a general election? Digging into an omelet at a Denny’s in Stockton, near his home in Walnut Grove, Garamendi, 63, said he can win votes in California’s “red zones” in his third bid for the post since 1982, even though he is a Democrat. He says he has built a deep knowledge of the state as lieutenant governor, insurance commissioner and lawmaker.

“Climate change, environment, energy policy and healthcare,” said Garamendi, who owns a cattle ranch in Calaveras County. “I’ve worked on these issues for 30 years.”

Brown -- who has been telling associates he wants his old job back -- is viewed as formidable by virtue of his family’s political dynasty (as the son of Gov. Pat Brown), his tenure as a colorful two-term governor from 1975 through 1982, three attempts to win the presidency and a political resurrection as Oakland mayor a decade ago.

Asked last month which Democrat had the best odds, Schwarzenegger went with Brown, speculating that Feinstein would stay in Washington.

“He has been governor twice before in California, and he has worked his way back up again,” the governor told a magazine publisher’s group in San Francisco. “And he kind of can reach the Republicans and Democrats and bring different people together.”

Poizner “has also a good shot,” Schwarzenegger said.

Brown said it was “very premature” to make a decision about running, but he acknowledged that he had picked up the pace of his fundraising.

“Certainly it’s something I’m giving a lot of thought to,” he said. In an interview, Brown showed a keen interest in the fundraising of his rivals, and cited the nearly $3 million in his own campaign account.

“Does Garamendi have a governor’s account?” he asked. “There’s not much activity there, is there?. . . . You notice Newsom has raised a little bit of money.”

Brown cited the state prison crisis, charter schools and energy as key issues now. He said California had been at the forefront of renewable energy during his governorship, but since then conflicts between public and private utilities and a lack of transmission lines have impeded progress.

“I think a big opportunity is to promote alternative energy,” Brown said. “The Silicon Valley has been investing billions.”

Describing himself as “a student” of California, Brown said he had gained new insight from his previous tenure after a quarter-century of thought:

“I can see the unintended consequences of all these 10,000 laws that a governor puts in over the course of eight years.”

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard C. Paddock contributed to this report.


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