Who wants to run California?

The state's budget is in shambles, but candidates are already lining up for the 2010 gubernatorial race. They include San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and former eBay chief Meg Whitman.

California State Capitol Building, Sacramento.

With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) barred by term limits from running for reelection – and with one of the lowest ratings for a governor here – the dynamics of next year’s gubernatorial election are beginning to sift out in California.

Six candidates are beginning to emerge from the shadows, testing the waters for one of the most unwieldy jobs in American politics. The Craigslist classified might read: “Wanted: head of government serving 39 million people. Deeply in debt. Infrastructure crumbling. One of highest bars for getting budget approvals or tax increases (two-thirds of the legislature). Government restructuring needed. Voters unwilling.”

The candidates include mayors of the state’s two most populous cities, Gavin Newsom of San Francisco and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles; two Silicon Valley millionaires, former eBay chief Meg Whitman and current state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner; and two former officeholders, former Rep. Tom Campbell and former Gov. Jerry Brown, now state attorney general.

“We have a number of very qualified candidates, all of whom would be crazy to want it, but they all think they are the ones who can solve California's problems,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

There are also two other candidates who may declare. One is state treasurer Bill Lockyer, whose name has been floated as a possible dark horse, and the other is US Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“The elephant in the room is: Will Dianne Feinstein come in? There’s about a 50 percent chance,” says Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University.

But the May 19 special election – in which five sweeping government fiscal-reform measures were soundly rejected by voters – may have reduced the chances that a Democrat will be the automatic alternative to Governor Schwarznegger, say analysts.

“The May 19 election was a conservative backlash against the budget the Democrats had forged,” says Tony Quinn, co-editor of California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative races and politics. After the vote, Schwarzenegger last week proposed sweeping budget cuts, including across-the-board salary cuts to the state’s 230,000 state workers.

"The current political climate makes it less likely for the Democrats to automatically win the governorship next year," Dr. Quinn adds.

Whitman gets McCain’s backing

It’s too soon to predict front-runners but some candidates are grabbing early attention.

Mayor Newsom last week called for a $5 donation to his campaign to create an “army of change.” “Donate 5 bucks to change CA,” he wrote on his Facebook account.

Also last week, former eBay chief Ms. Whitman was endorsed for the Republican nomination by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona last week (she was an aide for his 2008 presidential run).

Whitman has wowed smaller crowds across the state, and her business background is seen as a plus. “She’s accomplished plenty already and this [candidacy] seems to be borne of her desire to give back,” says Marilyn Gutsche, a 25-year Santa Barbara resident who attended a Whitman luncheon recently. “I’m a registered independent and would vote for her on any ticket. I’m smitten.”

But rival Mr. Poizner claims to have the support of the bulk of state Republican legislators and other elected officials.

“It certainly looks like Poizner has garnered some significant support, but Whitman just received McCain's endorsement. I don't think anyone is out of the running at this point,” says Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the Center for Governmental Studies.

Few detailed solutions

Recognizing voter anger and the state’s seemingly intractable problems, most candidates have so far largely stayed out of the spotlight and kept their speeches vague on solutions.

One of the few candidates who has spelled out solutions for the California budget is former congressman Tom Campbell. An economics and law teacher at Chapman University in Orange County, Mr. Campbell's ideas include both a controversial gas tax and $15 billion in spending cuts in healthcare for the poor, welfare, and university systems.

His comments encapsulate Republican fears that more regulation and income taxation would only drive citizens and businesses from the state. In a recent oped in the San Francisco Chronicle, he wrote,“To those who say we’d be out of the present budget crisis if only the ‘wealthy paid their fair share,’ I have to ask, how much more do you want the top 3 percent to pay? All of it?”

But in a political climate stressed by endless budget talk, his words may be falling on deaf ears. “Tom Campbell is the one candidate in either party who has stepped up and spelled out specific budget cuts,” says John Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Of the main candidates, he probably has the least chance of election.”

The current moment isn’t good for Los Angeles’s Mayor Villaraigosa, either. He’s evolved into a national Hispanic leader, but this is seen by some to have come at the expense of his home city. The June edition of Los Angeles magazine has his smiling figure on the cover stamped with the word, “Failure.” The article is harsh about his gubernatorial aspirations: “[W]e realize now that your career has been less about fulfilling commitments than about seizing opportunities….”

Although Villaraigosa didn't face much competition for reelection last year, his numbers were not strong, points out Ms. Levinson of the Center for Government Studies.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Brown has not formally declared his candidacy but makes no secret of his desire to run. He carries the baggage of personal ambition, analysts say. After serving as governor from 1975 to 1983, he spent time in Asia before returning to become mayor of Oakland and now attorney general.

“It’s not much of a career builder; it’s more of a career ender,” Mr. Brown, now in his 70s, told the Los Angeles Times, “But I feel I could bear that better than the other candidates.”

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