Having been badly trounced in a straw poll in his home state, California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. must now ask if his presidential candidacy has sputtered out just as the delegate-selection process begins in earnest.
His rock concert fund-raising efforts have been less than dazzling. He has urged his few supporters in Iowa to vote "uncommitted" lest he be further embarrassed. And state government in California has bogged down during his campaign sabbatical (although not entirely because of it).
Held on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, the presidential poll of California Democratic Central Committee members in San Francisco Jan. 20 gave Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts a slight edge over President Carter (42-40 percent). Governor Brown trailed a distant third with just 14 percent of the nearly 1,500 voting. Four percent were undecided or favored a minor candidate.
Both the Kennedy and Carter camps, which have spent considerable lobbying efforts on this nonbinding vote, claimed victory.
"This shows that the tide has been reversed," said Allard Lowenstein, the former New York congressman working for Senator Kennedy. "We started out way behind."
Noting that Mr. Carter won just 21 percent of the California primary vote in 1976 (he was swamped by Governor Brown) and as recently as last month was favored by only 23 percent of Democratic voters in California (according to one poll), the President's supporters also were cheered by the results in San Francisco. "I'll take that in California any day," said Carter-Mondale campaign staff director Les Francis.
Backers of Governor Brown claim that the poll of Democratic activists is not a true representation of how the general party populace would vote more than four months later in the June 3 California presidential primary. That is undoubtedly true, most observers agree.
California will send the largest state delegation to the Democratic convention in August. But a broad sampling of Democrats here probably would bring greater cheer to the Carter campaign than to supporters of Governor Brown.
Of those Democrats who responded to a state party questionnaire just after Christmas, 57 percent supported the President's re-election, 36 percent favored Senator Kennedy, and just 7 percent backed Mr. Brown.
The governor has spent less than a week in total in California over the past few months, and during that time much of state government has operated only fitfully.
The State Legislature in Sacramento has been embroiled in an intraparty Democratic battle over who will be speaker of the Assembly (second-most powerful post after the governor). The California Supreme Court recently ruled that Lt. Gov. Michael Curb (a Republican and Ronald Reagan is out of state. The post-Proposition 13 bailout surplus has run out, and -- faced with another voter initiative that could cut state income taxes in half -- the governor has had to formulate an austere contingency budget.
Governor Brown's presidential ambitions cannot be blamed for all of this, but they do add to the perception that his major interests are elsewhere and help explain his poor campaign showing in California.
"It would help if he came back and went to work," state Democratic chairman Richard O'Neill says. For now, however, mindful that the fortunes of either of his dominant rivals could slip in the next few months, Mr. Brown intends to govern California at a distance and remain a full-time candidate.