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Brown in Command, Boxer Holding On, A Big Green Victory in the Making

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The great Republican wave is going to crash against the Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, if indeed it makes it across the Nevada desert. Despite running against the biggest spending candidate in American history, Jerry Brown is in command in the race for governor of California, the former governor and presidential contender close to completing an amazing comeback.

Senator Barbara Boxer is holding on despite being targeted by big-spending national Republican groups. And the initiative to do away with California's landmark climate change/renewable energy program is going down in flames.

In five straight public polls, including one by Fox News, Brown's lead over billionaire Meg Whitman ranges from 8 to 13 points. Reliable private polling has Brown up by nine. And that was before Whitman, her churlish attitude coming to the fore yesterday in a softball session with Brown and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, managed to get herself booed at Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference in Long Beach.

"You know, 30 years ago, anything was possible in this state." Jerry Brown's campaign cleverly uses Whitman's own words against her in this new TV ad.

Barbara Boxer always looks more vulnerable than she turns out to be, and after nearly taking command of her race against ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina at the beginning of the month, experienced slippage in private and some public polling. This prompted the national Republican Senate and Karl Rove operations to pour millions into the race, millions which could make more of a difference in a less expensive state. But Boxer's position seems to have stabilized, with a boost coming from her and Brown's rally at USC last week with President Barack Obama, and Fiorina's has not. Reportedly suffering an infection from reconstructive surgery, Fiorina, a breast cancer survivor, was hospitalized on Tuesday. Her return to the campaign trail is not yet set.

The Boxer and Brown races are on somewhat separate tracks. She suffers from the overhang of a very unpopular Congress, but Brown, who has withstood the incredible onslaught of billionaire Meg Whitman's campaign, does not. He's the ultimate anti-pol/ultra-pol, famed for his "insider's knowledge/outsider's mind." But what is not on a separate track at all is the campaign over Proposition 23, the initiative to do away with the state's program to cut greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable energy, which stands as one of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's most cherished accomplishments.

Attorney General Brown and Schwarzenegger joined forces repeatedly to fight the Bush/Cheney Administration and its attempts to undermine California's efforts, which began in 2002 when then Governor Gray Davis signed legislation to cut tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases and, earlier, in the 1970s, when then Governor Brown pioneered a new path on energy emphasizing conservation and renewable resources.

Over eight years ago, before he decided to run for governor, Schwarzenegger told me that he wanted to build on what Brown and Davis had done, to go further in the efforts to cut greenhouse gases and to build the alternative energy path. After fits and starts in his first term, when his corps of advisors was dominated by people now advising Whitman, Schwarzenegger joined forces with state Senator Fran Pavley and ex-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez to create the comprehensive AB 32 program.

It is this program which Whitman and right-wing and corporate allies want to derail. Not that Whitman has endorsed Proposition 23, which the more forthright Fiorina has. Private polling indicated many months ago that the initiative, ginned up by a few California right-wingers and two Texas oil companies, was eminently beatable by a robust campaign.

While Yes on 23 has raised about $11 million, virtually all from oil companies, No on 23 has raised some $31 million. That money and millions more has come from campaign co-chair and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer,Terminator and Avatar director James Cameron, famed venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, some fellow named Bill Gates, Laurene Powell Jobs (married to a guy named Steve), Google execs, and more.

Meg Whitman, going unscripted, had a disastrous exchange yesterday at Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference.

At Schwarzenegger's behest, former Secretary of State George Shultz -- who was on hand for the bill signing on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay four years ago -- is the other co-chair of No on 23. The presence of this Republican icon, with vigorous behind-the-scenes efforts by Schwarzenegger and others, served to discourage the expansion of the Yes on 23 fundraising base beyond politically toxic oil companies. And, as Steyer told me last month, many tech leaders see the potential for new energy technology to provide the next economic boom in the Golden State.

All of which places things in Brown's wheelhouse moving forward to the election and beyond.

California is getting set to head back to the future with Brown. I've known him for decades and have come to think of him as the world's oldest 36 year old. That's how old he was when he was first elected governor of California in 1974.

A lot has changed since, but not his curiosity and irrepressibility. Or, as it turns out, his weight. Brown weighs now what he weighed when he first ran for governor in 1974, back when he was half his current age.

Of course, as his one-time chief of staff, former Governor Gray Davis, pointed out in one of our conversations at the beginning of the year, he can tell when Brown is getting ready to make a big move because he whips himself into shape. Which is another way of saying that Brown has had more relaxed, shall we say, levels of fitness at various times over the years.

But even Schwarzenegger, definitely an expert, has told me that he marvels at Brown's fitness. Indeed, he's proved easily to be the most energetic of the top-of-the-ticket candidates, even though he's the oldest, and is much older than Whitman, a one-time swimmer.

I mention age because it's been such a big part of commentary on Brown, in part because of the new fashion of shallow snarkiness and in part because of John McCain. Who, to be fair, might be as vigorous as Brown had he not been tortured for half a decade in the Hanoi Hilton.

One metaphor that's been bandied about is that Brown is like Gandalf, the wizened wizard from Lord of the Rings. Actually, if we're going to have an accurate Tolkien metaphor, Brown would be much more like Aragorn, featured in the final film of the trilogy, the prodigal returned to reclaim the throne in The Return of the King.

Whitman tries, again, to reboot the race with this 60-second positive TV ad.

But Aragorn is younger, and in any event Lord of the Rings isn't my favorite British pop culture myth.

We know that Jerry Brown can't be Harry Potter. And James Bond is a stretch, though Brown is younger than Sean Connery and those JB initials do tantalize.

Kidding aside, I think Brown is much more like the Doctor in Doctor Who. He's 900 years old, but eternally youthful. Humorous, brilliant, knows all kinds of things and is more than willing to go on about them, a bit eccentric -- okay, quite eccentric -- very associative, endlessly curious, a man of peace who is, well, quite militant, as his opponents frequently come to learn.

Someone fascinated by the richness of life but who is personally rather ascetic, embracing an austere aesthetic. As befits someone who lives and travels in a little blue police box that is, nonetheless, much bigger on the inside than the outside.

When it comes to American mythology, Brown was a key model for The Candidate, the 1972 New Hollywood classic about the maverick son of a famous former California governor who runs for the U.S. Senate. It's still one of the best cinematic depictions of politics to be found.

While Brown was, and still is in some respects, reminiscent of the young Bill McKay, now he is also reminiscent, in at least one sense, of Bill McKay's father. When McKay asks his dad if it's true that he ran his own campaigns, the old governor replies: "Why, shit yes, what do you take me for?"

Brown, who was a key model for Bill McKay in the New Hollywood classic The Candidate, retains some of those characteristics but has also become more like McKay's father, the former governor.

Brown has had many capable people on his staff over the decades, but in many respects it's been an endlessly changing cast of characters, with only one public constant, Brown himself. That is, until several years ago.

Today, of course, as has been the case for years, Anne Gust Brown is his close collaborator and partner, confidant and manager in his big venture/adventure. The two of them are at the center of a tight and capable group at Brown campaign headquarters in Oakland, which includes the able day-to-day campaign manager Steve Glazer and stalwart Sterling Clifford, the press secretary so frequently out-numbered by the hordes of high-paid flacks employed by Whitman.

There's been a lot of criticism in political and media circles of Brown's campaign. I've already explained why so much of that was off-base, because Brown's Zen rope-a-dope approach was the fundamentally correct course.

Now, with Brown ahead, people are marveling at how good the TV ads coming out of Oakland suddenly are. (Brown in particular enjoys seeing how imagery can be swiftly fiddled with on a Macintosh, in stark contrast to the old and cumbersome days of media production.) But the campaign's work was always good, more than adequate to the occasion and in fitting with the design of the enterprise.

And while many have criticized Brown's campaign for being too insular, and it is a tight-knit group there in Oakland, it's important to keep in mind that there is the Campaign, and there is the Network.

Jerry Brown established his political positioning for the race early this year, saying that he has an "insider's knowledge" and "an outsider's mind."

By which I mean the network of contacts, colleagues, friends, associates, what have you, that Brown himself reaches out to, via phone, e-mail, and text message, for information and ideas, sifting through it all to aid in his decision-making.

Though only LA Times columnist George Skelton and I took note of it, a sudden emergence at the end of last month, on the day of the first Brown-Whitman debate, made this reality concrete.

That morning, Brown participated in a lengthy ceremony in the Council Room of the Governor's Office with Schwarzenegger, awarding the Medal of Valor to public safety officers, then held a press availability in the hallway outside, next to the big bear statue that Schwarzenegger installed there.

For their parts, Schwarzenegger and Brown heaped praise upon one another, with Schwarzenegger nearly referring to the attorney general as the governor, calling him lieutenant governor instead.

As the ceremony went on, the keen observer may have noticed a cherubic-looking man well off to Brown's right, in a corner of the room next to the entrance to the corridor leading to Schwarzenegger's inner sanctum. But I doubt that most knew who he was. Indeed, one of Schwarzenegger's top aides asked me later about "this Tom Quinn fellow" who had accompanied Brown in to see Schwarzenegger prior to the ceremony.

While Brown, sounding relaxed and confident outside the Governor's Office after the awards ceremony, spoke to the assembled reporters, saying nothing especially noteworthy but sounding reassuring, Quinn was very far off to the side, nowhere near the cameras. Then, with the questions asked and mostly answered, Quinn stepped in before a tail end question could be asked and walked off with Brown. The two of them got in an elevator by themselves, heading up.

Tom Quinn, who had never been mentioned in any campaign reports about Brown till I reported this on my blog, was his first campaign manager and is probably his longest-standing advisor. He goes so far back with Brown that I misremembered the history, writing on my New West Notes blog that Quinn connected with Brown before he ran for office, and was his campaign manager in his races for the Los Angeles Community College Board in 1969, California Secretary of State in 1970, and Governor of California in 1974. After Brown was elected governor, Quinn became a member of his Cabinet and head of the state Air Resources Board. Later, he returned to the private sector, running a news service and now owning radio stations.

Later that day, after I'd reported the surfacing of Quinn, who played a lead role in helping Brown prep for all his debates this year, I spoke with Gray Davis by phone as we waited for the first debate to begin. Davis told me I'd gotten the beginning of the Brown-Quinn relationship wrong. That in fact, like Davis himself some years later, Quinn first met Brown as the two were running for public office.

In Davis's case, his encounter with Brown came while both campaigned in the 1974 statewide Democratic primaries, with Brown running for governor and Davis running unsuccessfully for state treasurer. In Quinn's case, he and Brown were both running for the LA Community College board.

Quinn, whose father was a top aide to then LA Mayor Sam Yorty, an opponent of Brown's father, impressed Brown by winning the notice of powerhouse LA Times political writer Richard Bergholz (who is widely believed to have spurred Richard Nixon's "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" in a press conference following his defeat by Pat Brown in the 1962 governor's race).

Quinn had found out where Bergholz lived, then inveigled his outlying neighbors to put up his lawn signs, leading Bergholz to believe that Quinn had far more support than he had. Intrigued by Quinn's cleverness and energy, Brown made him his campaign manager for his run for California secretary of state the following year, and the game was afoot.

Who, exactly, is in Brown's loose-knit Network, which he mentioned at a private press dinner I suggested he attend at last spring's state Democratic convention and again yesterday, when asked about his confidants in addition to Anne Gust? Only one person knows for sure.

Speaking of Brown's comment yesterday, that event almost certainly marked Meg Whitman's last stand. She needed to gain some traction in the free media, and spark support from women voters, with whom she lags. Unfortunately for her, the opposite occurred.

There was concern in all three camps -- those of Brown, Schwarzenegger, and Whitman -- about yesterday's session with NBC Today Show host Matt Lauer at Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference in Long Beach.

To the extent that there was prepping for the substance suggested by the session's title, "Who We Are, Where We Are Going," it was largely unnecessary. Lauer conducted things as if this were any afternoon talk show, albeit one with two and possibly three California governors on the same stage.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appeared yesterday with Brown and Whitman, did not take offense at this ad demonstrating that his former advisors recycled his old lines for Whitman, saying "I delivered the lines better."

But in the end, it was clear that there were only two governors on the stage, as the dynamics ended with a great deal of crowd hostility directed at Whitman.

After a series of moderately engaging moments, Lauer sprang his surprise question, perhaps overstepping his bounds as moderator in the process. He challenged Brown and Whitman to take down their negative ads and only run positive ads.

After mulling the notion in his trademark think out loud manner, Brown said he would if she would.

But Whitman was having none of it, saying that she needs to educate the public about Brown's unsuccessful record in public life. The crowd didn't like this one bit, but the billionaire, who has quite a tin ear, didn't catch on even as the jeers became widespread.

Brown played to the crowd, saying he has a new positive ad with Whitman saying how great things were in California 30 years ago, and pointing out that Brown was governor then. But so churlish had Whitman become by this point that she said she just had to point out that Brown lost a Senate race after his eight years as governor.

The crowd liked that even less.

For his part, Schwarzenegger, who got to briefly discuss his accomplishments and ideas with Lauer before Brown and Whitman came out, allowed as how Whitman had had a great career as a corporate executive, but bristled at her depiction of California as a basket case and described Brown as having been "a great governor."

Disaster.

But not for Jerry Brown, who Lauer had already taken to calling "Governor Brown."

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.