Los Angeles — California's Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. is facing what many observers here say is the toughest fight of his political career. Ironically, his opponent in this battle, where a US Senate seat is at stake, is his own badly battered image.
In one politically sobering recent week, he was hit with the long-simmering Mediterranean fruit fly crisis as well as by allegations that his staff impeded a politically related investigation of his office. Suddenly, the Democratic governor has hit a rocky road in his quest for Republican S. I. Hayakawa's US Senate seat.
"It's bad and it's bleak for Jerry," says Mervin Field, director of the California Poll and a veteran Brown observer. "I've always said that Jerry Brown has thrown away a lot of political capital, but that he always had a lot left in the reservoir."
"Now," he says, "the reservoir is dropping."
At issue is how badly Brown's image has been hurt by his controversial performance in the "Medfly" crisis and by the media's hard-hitting coverage of it. Equally important, in terms of long-range damage to his image, is whether Brown can keep potential opponents from making political hay by playing up his recent troubles as proof that the governor is a "go which ever way the wind blows" politician.
Although Brown is widely credited with the powers of a political phoenix -- recovering again and again from such near-disastrous showings as his ill-fated bid for the presidency in 1980 -- many members of the media have wasted no time in writing off the governor's current dilemma as his finalm epitaph.
Still, many observers agree that Governor Brown may be charting the roughest waters he's ever encountered. He has not been hit just with charges that he vacillated -- for political reasons -- in ordering aerial spraying of a fly-infested agricultural area of northern California.
He also will have to face the political consequences of a Los Angeles district attorney's inquiry into whether Brown's staff impeded an investigation of charges that the governor's top aides had used a state-leased computer to compile a political mailing list. The charges were referred to district attorneys in Los Angeles and Sacramento by the Fair Political Practices Commission, which had conducted the original investigation. The inquiry, which does not involve Brown's conduct, may nonetheless have repercussions for the governor, who has long enjoyed a reputation for personal integrity and honesty.
Both these problems are compounded by the fact that Brown faces hostility not only from the media -- which have almost gleefully reported his daily fortunes -- but from his own party, which he has often snubbed in the past.
All of his combines to make Brown "highly vulnerable," says pollster Field, in a 1982 Senate Democratic primary that, until a few weeks ago, was generally considered to be Brown's for the taking.
Although many observers agree that long-term assessments will depend at least in part on the outcome of the battle to exterminate the Medfly, the acuteness of the governor's present problems has clearly given a boost to two potential candidates: Assemblyman Leo McCarthy, a liberal Democrat who lost the speakership last year; and Daniel K. Whitehurst, the young and conservative Democratic mayor of Fresno, an agricultural center.
Still, other observers and Brown confidant says the flap over Governor Brown's political future must be tempered by the fact that the average voter's memory is notoriously short -- and that the primary race i s still several months off.