Gov. Moonbeam 2.0?

Some people might think that it’s way too early to begin planning for the 2010 race for governor, when term limits will force Arnold Schwarzenegger to step down and the seat will be open for the first time since 1998.

But when the topic is Atty. Gen. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., the master of political reincarnation, time itself is relative and inconsequential. So let the speculation begin.

First, let’s dispense with the legalities. It wasn’t until 1990 -- eight years after Brown’s second term as governor ended -- that California voters approved a constitutional amendment limiting future governors to two consecutive four-year terms.

Poof! Brown’s time in office doesn’t count because the law is not retroactive.

Then, you might ask, “How would he do?” Which, for the sublimely self-confident Brown, is the wrong question.

“It’s not about how I would do, it’s about what I want to do,” he said the other day when asked about his chances if he ran for governor in 2010. “And I don’t have any thoughts on that at this moment.”

But a longtime political adversary, Republican consultant Ken Khachigian -- who says that “I’ve studied him like Patton studied Rommel” -- believes he knows Brown’s intentions. “My theory is that Jerry still wants to run for president,” he said. “If he runs for governor, it will only be because he wants to run for president -- he’d view it as a stepping stone.”

Sources who have spoken with Brown in the last several months say he hasn’t discouraged the speculation, though he downplays private polls conducted by interested parties that show him the 3-2 favorite among Democrats, saying the poll results merely reflect his base.

Which raises the question of the potential field. Among the Democrats, all have their problems.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s public affair with a prominent Latina newscaster has raised questions about his judgment and character. And, by law, he cannot raise money to run for governor and seek reelection in 2009 at the same time.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s affair with his campaign manager’s wife was equally messy and has weighed him down with some heavy baggage.

Former Treasurer Phil Angelides had his shot at the governorship in 2006 and lost. Former Controller Steve Westly couldn’t win his party’s nomination the last time despite his vast wealth. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi strikes many Democrats as old news. And nobody knows Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

Many -- but certainly not all -- political professionals believe that Brown would stand a good chance in that field -- even though he’d be 72 years old if elected governor.

He’s never had trouble finding issues: His emphasis on the environment, especially global warming, as attorney general does not fall from the sky. This is the guy who gave birth to the California Coastal Commission. And though he has always personally opposed the death penalty, he burnished his law-and-order credentials as mayor of Oakland. And besides, opposition to the death penalty is not such an oddball stance these days, with many states declaring moratoriums until execution procedures and evidence testing can be firmed up. He would also have a few years as “California’s chief law enforcement officer” under his belt.

Former Gov. Gray Davis, who was Brown’s chief of staff, noted that the name Edmund G. Brown -- whether attached to the father or the son -- has been never been defeated in a primary ballot for state or local office since the early 1950s. “People underestimate the difficulty of getting known statewide -- particularly in an era of campaign finance laws

And everyone knows Edmund G. Brown.”

Republican consultant Jim Brulte said: “Jerry Brown is the prohibitive favorite to be the next governor of California. He starts with a base of support within the California Democratic Party that is a mile wide and a mile deep.”

Democratic consultant Richie Ross said: “I don’t think he’s beatable in a Democratic primary. And I think people would be intrigued by him again

Where did that derisive moniker ‘Governor Moonbeam’ come from? [coined by Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune in 1978 and retracted in 1992.] It came from the wacky idea that the state ought to launch its own communications satellite. Sure doesn’t seem wacky today, does it?”

GOP consultant Don Sipple said: “The Brown brand is a good brand, [something] hard for anyone to take away from him.”

And Democratic consultant Bill Carrick of Los Angeles said that if Brown’s opponents tried to stir up old resentments about his controversial handling of a medfly infestation in 1982 or the late California Chief Justice Rose Bird, whom Brown appointed in 1976 and voters recalled 10 years later because of her staunch opposition to the death penalty, “it would be hard to conjure up any of that stuff.”

But GOP consultant Dan Schnur believes that Brown would lose: “He had two great advantages in the attorney general’s race. One was disproportionate name ID. That’s not going to happen [in the next Democratic gubernatorial primary]. Westly, Angelides, Newsom, Villaraigossa, Garamendi or O’Connell could get themselves as well known. And [Brown] wouldn’t have the fundraising or name ID advantage he had over [former state Sen. Chuck] Poochigian.”

Democratic consultant Garry South is equally pessimistic: “The guy is pretty dated. There will be multiple candidates in the primary, and it will have been 36 years since he first ran for governor

Anybody born since the early ‘70s doesn’t have any recollection of Jerry Brown.”

OK, so what if Brown could win the Democratic nomination. How would he do in a general election?

Well, his track record running statewide is impressive. In 1970, Brown was elected secretary of state, defeating James Flournoy (50%-46%). Four years later, he beat Houston Flournoy (50%-47%) to become governor and was reelected in 1978, besting Evelle Younger (56%-37%). Brown lost a U.S. Senate bid to Pete Wilson in 1982 (45%-51%), and defeated Poochigian (56%-38%) last year in the attorney general’s race.

It’s pretty clear that, against staunch conservatives (Younger, Poochigian), Brown has done well, but less so against moderates (Wilson). So, what about the most likely Republican gubernatorial candidate on the horizon: Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, the moderate Silicon Valley multimillionaire?

Not exactly a household name, but if he’s willing to spend upward of $40 million, he could probably change that.

Poizner “would have a lot of money, and he’s a little more moderate” than a number of other potential Republicans, said Khachigian. “In the criminal justice area, [Brown would] be vulnerable.”

As Khachigian sees it, Brown tried to build up his law enforcement bona fides while mayor of Oakland, but his stands -- opposing the weakening of the state’s “three strikes” law, for instance -- have lacked genuine substance, which leaves him open to challenge.

Said Khachigian: “For Jerry, it doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be perceived as real.”

Philip J. Trounstine is director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. He is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News and former communications director for Gov. Gray Davis.