San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom abruptly abandoned his run for California governor Friday, folding in the face of weak poll numbers and a skimpy bank account and leaving state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown as the only major candidate bidding for the Democratic nomination.
Newsom's announcement in a statement issued just after 3 p.m. was surprising mainly for its timing, a full seven months before the primary. For weeks, rumors had circulated among political insiders that Newsom would leave the race absent a dramatic turnabout in his fortunes. The arrival of his first child, a daughter born seven weeks ago, increased that speculation.
In bowing out, Newsom, 42, cited family obligations as well as his duties at City Hall. The mayor's frequent absence from San Francisco had contributed in recent months to considerable slippage in his standing at home, where he once boasted stratospheric approval ratings.
"I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to -- and should be -- done," Newsom said in his statement. "This is not an easy decision. But it is one made with the best intentions for my wife, my daughter, the residents of the city and county of San Francisco and California Democrats."
Newsom's exit could offer a significant boost to Brown, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy. While there was immediate talk of potential new entrants to fill the vacuum created Friday -- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who earlier opted out, was among those mentioned -- Brown for now has the luxury of staying above the political scrum. Meanwhile, Republicans are waging an increasingly sharp-edged campaign for their party's nomination.
The primary is next June, and the election to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in November 2010.
"Now Brown can spend a lot of time appearing to be statesmanlike and not partisan," said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at UC Riverside. "He can position himself above politics, as the elder statesman who is an experienced hand and worked both sides of the aisle. Newsom would have pushed him to the left and made the appeal to centrist voters harder."
Newsom repeatedly told those close to him that he did not want to embarrass himself in the governor's race, and with each month's evident lack of progress he increasingly faced that danger.
For months, he traveled California, holding voter forums in the Inland Empire, the Central Valley, Orange County and other areas where he is little known beyond his headline-grabbing move, shortly after taking office in 2003, to legalize same-sex marriage back home. Newsom often touted his achievements in San Francisco, particularly on expanding healthcare coverage and enhancing the environment, as a model for the state.
More broadly, at a time when polls show deep disgust with Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-run Legislature, Newsom cast himself as an agent of change and Brown, who was governor from 1975 through 1982, as a worn political retread.
But the campaign foundered amid internal squabbles over how aggressively he should confront Brown and a sense that Newsom was insufficiently focused on some of the most important issues facing the state.
"At the end of the day, he didn't resonate," said David Latterman, a San Francisco political consultant who supported Newsom in both his races for mayor but grew critical in recent months. "The issues he was talking about -- high-tech, biotech, green this, environment that -- are important. But not for a lot of people at a time the state is a disaster zone."
Much of Newsom's campaign was predicated on the notion that he could replicate Barack Obama's success at riding social-media networks to excite young voters and attract other normally inattentive Californians. He worked hard to build the state's most expansive electronic grass-roots operation. He raised money online. His events were organized via Facebook. He was a regular on Twitter, even from his wife's bedside immediately after she gave birth.
Ultimately, however, none of that translated into broad success or financial support for the first-time statewide candidate. A Field Poll released earlier this month showed Newsom far behind Brown, who, at least publicly, all but ignored his challenger. The attorney general had the support of 47% of Democratic voters, compared with just 26% for Newsom. The only voters among whom the mayor was leading were those 18 to 39 -- some of the least likely to turn out. With them he had a 9% advantage.
More important, Newsom trailed badly in the money chase. He had $1.2 million in the bank at the end of the last reporting period in June and had raised only $709,000 since. Brown had $7.4 million on June 30 and has raised $1.3 million more since.
Earlier this month, Newsom brought in former President Clinton, an old Brown nemesis, for an endorsement and fund-raising event. But the returns, at least as indicated by partial financial reports, were disappointing.
With an opportunity to fill a sudden opening, many expect no shortage of prospects to weigh a challenge to Brown. At the top of most lists is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has long coveted the governor's office but has appeared to be leaning against a run as she enjoys increased clout in Washington as part of the Democratic majority under Obama.
"My guess is in the next 48 or 72 hours a bunch of Democrats will be looking at themselves in the mirror to see if they see a governor and maybe will be making a few calls to see if there is interest in their candidacy," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist who was unaffiliated in the governor's race.
A spokeswoman for Villaraigosa, Sarah Hamilton, took the L.A. mayor out of the running, saying he was focused on his job and "not reconsidering his decision."
Any new entrant, other than perhaps Feinstein, would face the same dynamic that drove Newsom, and earlier Villaraigosa, from the race: the difficulty of combating a wily political veteran with decades of alliances and a shrewd ability to read the mood of voters.
Times staff writers Cathleen Decker, Michael Finnegan and Phil Willon contributed to this report.