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Enter the Moonbeam

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Here comes Jerry Brown. After months of Zen rope-a-dope against billionaire Meg Whitman's biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history, Brown is spinning up his campaign to succeed term-limited Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

Attorney General Brown made three campaign appearances on Thursday, in Oakland and Los Angeles, and will make a round of appearances over Labor Day weekend. Next week he begins running TV ads, the first of his campaign. Oddly enough, with Whitman's incessant advertising over the past year, the former two-term governor of California, two-term mayor of gritty Oakland, and two-time runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination will be the fresh presence on the air.

On the eve of all this, Brown was in a pensive mood. In an evening conversation, he told me that he feels ready for the two-month dash to the finish line. "The stage is set," he said.

Saying that he has an "insider's knowledge" and an "outsider's mind," Jerry Brown formally announced his candidacy for Governor of California in March.

He was still tweaking his message -- as those who've known Brown for a long time know, what he says is set when he says it -- but you can bet that reviving and reforming the economy through green technology, which Brown pioneered with the energy and environmental policies of his first governorship (and early promotion of Silicon Valley), protecting workers and consumers, and bringing all parties together to get state government to live within its means will be in the mix.

Brown has a record to cite on all that, including his status as the only governor of the modern era to build a rainy day budget fund and not to institute a general tax increase, with a record of frugality to match Ronald Reagan's. The "Governor Moonbeam" moniker is forever attached to him, though the irascible Chicago columnist who coined the term, Mike Royko, later apologized for it in print, calling Brown grounded and visionary, and Brown now jokes about it as a sign of his independence.

As Brown noted, even though Arnold Schwarzenegger has far more experience in public affairs than Meg Whitman -- Schwarzenegger became involved in "giving back" in 1977, and worked on education-related issues for many years -- it took him a few years to gain experience in the governorship. Now, with the state government in deep crisis due to long-term structural problems and a slow recovery from the near meltdown of the global financial system, "It's not a time for beginners," Brown says.

And Whitman, who brandishes a pamphlet she persists in calling a book and pretends that loose talk about balancing the budget by cutting taxes for the very rich and eliminating $15 billion in spending she can't identify constitutes a "plan," is just that. Her candidacy would be a joke if there were still a formidable press corps in California and if she hadn't already spent over $120 million, with plenty more where that came from.

Video used to introduce Brown at the California Democratic Party convention this past spring.

But with a little help from his friends, principally the California Working Families group, and some adroit counter-punching, Brown has weathered the passage from the June 8th primary to Labor Day weekend in good shape. Whitman's plan was to blow Brown out of the water during this period, building a 12 to 15-point lead and solidifying it, making it impossible for Brown to come back with a late burst after Labor Day when he finally could afford to go on the air.

Her alternative plan was to spook Brown into spending much of his carefully husbanded campaign resources -- Brown has campaign contribution limits to contend with -- over the summer, with not enough left in reserve for the fall.

It didn't work out that way, as Whitman's forces implicitly acknowledge. The race is essentially even in credible polls, including Whitman's own. Whitman chief strategist Mike Murphy told a daily newspaper that she's starting to get some momentum as Labor Day approaches. Another spokesman says Whitman is doing well, considering the 14-point Democratic voter registration edge in California. Tellingly, they don't offer any of their own polling to claim any lead, which they've certainly done in the past.

While Brown eschewed most campaign events in favor of fundraising and conducting his high-profile day job as California's chief law enforcement officer, which he won in a landslide 2006 election, some allies helped him bridge the gap with TV, radio, and online advertising. Yet, effective though their efforts have been, they have been dwarfed by the spending of Whitman and her corporate allies, whose late-breaking efforts are funded by secret sources.

Brown appeared on Hardball.

The principal independent expenditure committee, "IEs" as they are known -- such groups can raise money in unlimited amounts but must report all funding sources and cannot coordinate their activities with the candidate -- was and is called California Working Families.

Funded principally by labor unions, California Working Families has spent $8.7 million since the primary, with $7 million of that going to TV advertising, principally in the Los Angeles and San Diego media markets, and $1 million to online advertising.

AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, spent another $2 million on a TV ad in those markets. AFSCME was to have funded an ad through California Working Families. But, as my reporting on this indicated, the commitment by state AFSCME went in another direction at the national level. Yet the ad turned out to be consistent with the California Working Families plan.

Another loosely aligned independent expenditure committee called Working Californians, also principally backed by labor, has spent a few million more on radio ads around the state, along with a few hundred thousand on Spanish language TV. While most of the IE advertising is negative on Whitman, who has been advertising everywhere for many months, two of this group's radio ads have been positive spots on Brown.

Which means that Jerry Brown is still largely to be introduced, at least in an advertising sense, on California's airwaves, making the deadlocked race a great opportunity for him.

So that is a little less than $14 million spent on Brown's behalf by the labor-backed independent committees, with a little over $9 million on television.

During this period, Whitman spent $24 million on TV. With millions more on radio, direct mail, online ads, and a panoply of campaign activities. (The word in Republican consulting circles is that if you want to make your fortune, get in to see Whitman with an "innovative" idea.) And a shadowy group called "Small Business Action Committee" -- whose reported activities shows it to be a vessel for Big Business activities -- which refuses to divulge the sources of its funds claiming a legal loophole, is spending a few million more on anti-Brown TV attack ads.

As you see, Whitman, national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign against Barack Obama, who remains popular in California, outspent Brown's allies by three to one. She outspent her super-rich primary rival, Steve Poizner, by more than three to one. And yet she has made little headway.

In a Wednesday conference call with California Working Families officials, principal officer Roger Salazar noted that the bulk of the group's work is done, though it will continue with online advertising. A survey by pollster David Binder, completed Tuesday night, has Brown very slightly ahead of Whitman, 45% to 43%.

In November 2007, Attorney General Jerry Brown and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined forces to sue the Bush/Cheney Administration for blocking California's moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Billionaire Meg Whitman opposes the program.

Which prompted California Building Trades Council head Bob Balgenorth to say: "We can safely declare resounding success over the summer."

State firefighters union president Lou Paulsen, noting that Brown "is constrained by Prop 34 contribution limits," said their work had been to "fill the gap over the summer." Whitman, he noted, "failed to build any kind of lead, and her negatives are through the roof."

Balgenorth and Paulsen then announced their resignations from the committee in order to work directly with the Brown campaign.

Service Employees leader Courtni Pugh, discussing the TV ads, said the group's first ad about Whitman's failure to vote resonated strongly in their research and that their ad attacking Whitman for lying about Brown in a widely panned 60-second attack ad "stopped her progress."

Group strategist Larry Grisolano noted that their first poll had Whitman up by two points coming out of the primary and down by two points going into Labor Day weekend. A statistical tie at the beginning and a statistical tie at the end of the period.

A few weeks ago, when independent expenditure spending on his behalf had gone dark for a time, Brown noted that his polling showed Whitman's negatives continuing to go up.

While the help from his friends has helped Brown weather the most dangerous passage of his campaign, from the contested Republican primary to Labor Day weekend, he's also been helped by Whitman's inherent problems as a candidate, which I've written about in detail here on the Huffington Post and on my blog, New West Notes.

Jerry Brown has done this before, but never quite this way. No one has, since no one has ever before faced such a free-spending opponent.

Fortunately for Brown, he knows more than when he used to know it all.

Ali-Foreman, Round 8 of the "Rumble in the Jungle," Zaire 1974.

Last fall, in discussing the likelihood that he would face a candidate who vowed to spend at least $150 million, and the pressure he would come under from the professional consultant class and chatterers in the media to "do something" in the face of an avalanche of spending, I mentioned the famed "Rumble in the Jungle" to Brown. That's the great heavyweight championship fight beween then ex-champ Muhammad Ali and then reigning champion George Foreman.

Foreman was younger, and much bigger and stronger, and had beaten fighters who'd beaten Ali. It looked to many like Ali couldn't possibly win when they met in Zaire in 1974.

But Ali got himself in top shape, and devised subtle strategies to deal with Foreman's fearsome power. He did some things to confuse Foreman and get him moving in the direction which Ali wanted. He also devised the "rope-a-dope," a way of fighting Foreman by seeming to do little for most of the match, slipping Foreman's endless salvos of punches.

By the eighth round, Foreman was tired, his punches having lost much of their force, while Ali was still fresh. Late in the round, Ali finally struck and won the fight by a knockout.

I asked Brown's wife, Anne Gust Brown, a top lawyer and former top Gap executive who ran Brown's campaign for attorney general and, along with Brown himself, calls the most important shots in Brown's gubernatorial campaign, about the campaign's finances.

She told me that they will have upwards of $30 million to spend from Labor Day till the election.

That is enough, needless to say, for a very serious campaign, more than twice what Brown's allies spent during the nearly three months between the primary election and Labor Day weekend.

Whitman, naturally, will still out-spend Brown, even when additional spending on Brown's behalf by the Democratic Party and labor allies is added in. But considering how well Brown has hung in there during the long rope-a-dope phase of the campaign, when Whitman had an overwhelming advantage and no one was able to make much of a pro-Brown case, it augurs well.

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