2007 has been a defining year for shaping the 2010 California governor's race, and Democratic Attorney General and former Gov. Jerry Brown has catapulted to the top of the pack of contenders.

Although Brown has not declared himself a candidate for the state's highest post, he's already said that he'll think about it next year. Chances are that he's thinking about it now — and for good reason.

Elected to the state's top position in 1974 at the tender age of 36 and re-elected four years later, Brown led the state through some contentious years marked by serious recession and terrible fights with the Democratic majorities in the California Legislature. So angry were Democrats with Brown that the Legislature mustered the onerous two-thirds vote to overturn Brown vetoes on 13 occasions. No governor's veto has been overturned since.

But the Jerry Brown of today is a long way from the Jerry Brown of 1974. Idealism has given way to pragmatism, and discussion of "psychic income" has refocused as concerns for a "living wage." And inasmuch as his stint as governor precedes the term limits era, suddenly Jerry Brown is in the catbird seat.

Few people anticipated this scenario even a year ago, but Brown's convincing wins in the Democratic primary and general election, disastrous events for other contenders, and his positions on the issues leave Brown poised as the person to beat in 2010:

-A proven winner — Brown has experience unequalled by any of his potential challengers at a time when California needs experience.


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As a former governor, he understands the complexities of state governance, particularly the budget at a time when the state is approaching a revenue crisis. As a former mayor of a big city, he's also been at the other end of sometimes contentious state/local relationships.

Name recognition, always a plus in politics, drapes Jerry Brown. While most people recognize him as a proven leader in many offices, few recall his days of sleeping on the floor in his Sacramento apartment or driving through the Capitol in an old Plymouth. In this way, the mature Jerry Brown has trumped the youthful, idealistic Jerry Brown once dubbed "Governor Moonbeam."

-Fewer rivals — While Brown has done nothing but win, some of his potential rivals have imploded.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, previously viewed by many as the front runner, has been stung by the double whammy of an affair with a television reporter and a divorce; both stories will resonate for some time to come.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has suffered similar embarrassment as a result of his affair with a staffer married to a close friend of the mayor — ouch! Newsom is further along on the contrition path, but probably will not be fully rehabilitated by 2010.

Yes, there are others for the Democrats, notably former state controller Steve Westly, a former high tech executive who can self-finance a campaign on a whim. But he has to patch up intra-party scars from his loss to Phil Angelides in the 2006 Democratic primary.

As to the Republicans, the bench is very shallow after Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cannot run because of term limits. State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner stands out as their best hope, but his name recognition is very low and his office is not exactly a household word.

-The issues — If nothing else, Brown is the consummate activist. His early commitment as attorney general to protect the environment places him in the center of one of the hottest issues anywhere. His recent effort to get local governments to abide by state and federal laws attests both to his tenacity and concern for the planet — something that he pursued as mayor of Oakland.

And when it comes to ethics, Brown championed Proposition 9 in 1974, at the time the nation's toughest disclosure and campaign finance act. He did this as Secretary of State in a previously moribund office. And during his previous terms as governor, Brown repeatedly stuck up for consumers, the elderly and minorities. Collectively, these groups became the centerpiece of the Brown coalition.

None of this is to suggest that the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination and election are Brown's for the taking. The individuals cited above and others are not about to roll over without a fight. Still, the future for Brown looks bright.

The only question is, will he focus on the state's big prize once again? If so, the great philosopher Yogi Berra may be right — it may be "deja vu all over again."

Larry N. Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University. His "California Politics and Government: A Practical Approach" (with Terry Christensen) is in its ninth edition.