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Jerry Brown, the expected Democratic nominee for governor, has set his sights on Republican front-runner Meg Whitman, warning that she is trying to buy the election. (AP Photo/Russel A. Daniels)

SACRAMENTO — Jerry Brown appears to be gearing up for a populist campaign as he anticipates a run against a wealthy Republican.

The state attorney general will have a sizable target whether it's Meg Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of eBay, or state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who entered politics after making a fortune as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

"Almost any candidate running against a self-funded candidate is going to be tempted to make their opponent's money an issue," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant who ran billionaire Al Checchi's failed 1998 gubernatorial campaign. "It's a jujitsu move where you absorb the force of your opponent and turn it back against him or her."

With Whitman well ahead in the GOP primary polls, Brown set his sights on her recently, warning KGO radio listeners that she was trying to buy the election.

"Her whole theory is that she can buy the mind of California," Brown said, "and whoever fights her will be so small, compared to the amount of money that she's gathered up on Wall Street, that she will pulverize any opposition through the paid takeover of the airwaves of California."

Brown is expected to officially declare his candidacy next month in what appears to be an opponent-free Democratic primary, which will free him up to try to frame the debate even before Whitman and Poizner engage in their own primary battle.

Brown is signaling that Whitman's or Poizner's wealth could play into the anti-corporate, anti-CEO narrative at the heart of the public's discontent, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant.

"Whitman and Poizner will both have to deal with the problem of money," Carrick said. "Can a wealthy person be in touch with the reality of California and the economic anxieties Californians are going through? If Brown's smart, he'll be able to stoke some of that."

Between them, Whitman ($39 million) and Poizner ($19 million) have poured in more than $58 million of their own wealth into their campaigns. Whitman has vowed to spend as much as $150 million to win, while Brown has raised a little more than $12 million.

It is necessary and wise to prepare voters for an oncoming TV onslaught, Sragow said.

"It's building a trap that allows you to ultimately say, 'There she goes again,' " Sragow said. "If you can say early on you are going to see nothing but Meg Whitman on TV because she thinks she can buy the office, you can say, 'See, here she is again.' It's a smart tactic. He's attempting to take one of her strengths to use it against her."

Republicans said that the "class envy" tactic will not help distract from the issues on voters' minds.

"What you see is Brown choosing to engage in class warfare and demagoguery against anyone who comes from the private sector, as opposed to those who spend their entire career in government," said Ron Nehring, the state Republican Party chairman. "If you subscribe to the Jerry Brown/Barbara Boxer view of the world, the only people involved in a noble profession are government employees and politicians. Anything else they paint in a nefarious light."

The Whitman camp is not worried about a campaign that taps into voter anger toward wealthy CEOs, campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said.

"Jerry Brown and his entrenched allies will be spending millions to defend failure and the status quo in Sacramento, and Meg is committed to defeating them. It's that simple."

Brown has a history of riding the wave of popular sentiment, from falling in behind the anti-tax mood of Proposition 13 (after initially opposing it) as governor to embracing the state's anti-crime atmosphere during his mayoral stint in Oakland by opposing an effort to weaken California's Three Strikes Law.

As attorney general, Brown has taken on "the big, bad players — the big banks, the Wall Street executives — with a sharp, angry tone, and it resonates well," said Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco-based Democratic political consultant. "If he can build on that and start going after Whitman, it would be very effective and he'd be a credible messenger."

Taking on Whitman so early also "helps fire up the base" and serves to motivate potential donors, Tulchin said.

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.