WITH national pundits megaphoning the California governor's race as the most important contest of the year, the lead rider has just called in a fresh horse.
Just months ago, the Democratic state treasurer Kathleen Brown, daughter of one former California governor (Pat Brown, 1957-1968) and the brother of another (Jerry Brown, 1975-83), seemed a shoe-in to trounce Republican Gov. Pete Wilson this November. The race seemed hers to lose given her 20 percent to 30 percent lead over this state's most-unpopular-ever governor.
Now the gap has narrowed to 6 percentage points, editorial cartoonists are depicting Ms. Brown as lost in a rose garden, and columnists are advising serious crisis management.
``The national press fawned over her so much that [Brown] believed she would be annointed because of her father and brother,'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in Pomona. With less than 90 days left before the Democratic primary, ``she has still not articulated why she wants to be governor, and the press has begun to look at her critically,'' Professor Jeffe says.
Spurred by her slip in the polls and a highly publicized gaffe over the release of a serial rapist, Brown has done the political equivalent of dialing ``911'' by dumping both campaign manager Teresa Vilmain and policy director Roy Behr.
In their place she has hired well-known California image-master Clint Reilly as new gubernatorial campaign chair. Considered one of the most notorious political hired guns in the West, Mr. Reilly managed the winning campaigns of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan.
He is also the man known for dumping now-Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) when she was running for governor in 1988. Unconvinced that Ms. Feinstein was as focused as she needed to be to win, Reilly put out press releases questioning her desire and terminating her as his client. That toughness is seen as the reason behind another serious shakeup in the Brown campaign last week: the resignation of media consultant Jim Margolis and the firm that has represented Brown since her first race for state treasurer.
``The move to hire Reilly is good,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. ``Brown needs strength, direction, and leadership, and a take-charge manager down to the details - Clint is all those things.''
One other thing Reilly is, say state analysts, is expensive. ``He spends a lot of money on advertising, and his own services do not come cheap,'' says Mr. Cain. That may make more difference down the line for Brown, who must get past two other Democrats, state Sen. Tom Hayden and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi in a June primary. Though she once raised funds hand over fist, taking in $5.2 million by December, that has slowed to only about $950,000 this year.
Governor Wilson, by contrast, faces no opponent in the primary and has raised $3.1 million from January to March.
The California governor's race is important nationally because of the state's size. It casts one-fifth of the electoral votes (54) needed for victory in a presidential election, and holds a winner-takes-all presidential primary that guarantees victors a huge block of party-convention delegates. For 1996, the primary has been moved from June to March, when it will have much more impact on nomination races. A gubernatorial win for Wilson would position him for a presidential run against Democratic President Clinton.
To stop that from happening, analysts here say Brown must hone a believable message that fits both her image and the electorate's wants and exploit the negatives of her opponent.
``Don't forget, there are 30 [percent to] 40 percent of voters who would vote for anyone in place of Pete Wilson,'' says Steve Scott, associate editor of the California Journal.
By hiring an experienced politico like Reilly, the Brown campaign hopes to avoid incidents like Brown's public insistence that ``heads must roll'' because no Wilson administration appeared at the release hearing of a serial rapist, Melvin Carter.
Wilson countered with three punches: First, that his own Corrections Department had sought to extend the sentence; second, that only the prosecuting district attorney was eligible to appear; and third, that her brother had signed the law that shortened Mr. Carter's term. (Her father appointed the judge who gave him a light sentence to begin with.)
``She attacked Wilson where he was strong,'' says Mr. Scott, noting that Wilson has moved up in the polls after recently signing the ``three strikes, you're out'' bill to imprison repeat felons. ``And it has really hurt her.''
Nevertheless, Brown organizers say they're refocused and back on track.
``With Clint Reilly, we are going to move aggressively to a general-election strategy and to sharpen the focus on Wilson,'' says Michael Reese, Brown's communications chief. ``[Reilly] represents [an] appetite second only to hers for beating Pete Wilson.''
Brown positions herself as the only candidate with a plan to build what she calls a new California - creating jobs, fighting crime and reforming schools. But critics say her rhetoric falls on deaf ears because of her lack of political experience.
``Pete Wilson can point back at a record of being mayor, US senator, and governor to back up what he says,'' says Scott. ``People don't know what a state treasurer does, and it's hard for them to extrapolate what she does to being governor.''