Toting four decades of political baggage, Democrat Jerry Brown formally joined California’s race for governor last week, with an observation aimed at those who argue his time has long since passed.

“Adaptation is the essence of evolution,” Brown said of the many shifting stances in his long political record, “and those who don’t adapt go extinct.”

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For Brown, the characteristically philosophical comment was in part an answer to attacks from Republican contenders Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner. Three months before the June 8 primary election, both greeted his arrival into the campaign with trash talk about his first turn as governor, back when bell-bottoms and wide ties were cool, Californians sat in long lines waiting for gas, and Brown earned the moniker “Governor Moonbeam.”

“This election will be about the future of California, not the past,” said state Insurance Commissioner Poizner. “We cannot fall prey to the same high-tax policies and special interest-run government that has led our state into a fiscal disaster.” Growled former eBay CEO Whitman: “Jerry Brown has had a 40-year career in politics which has resulted in a trail of failed experiments, undelivered promises, big government, and higher taxes.” Not to put too fine a point on it.

While his Republican rivals sniped, however, Attorney General Brown put on a clinic of how a political pro can dominate a series of news cycles, getting a full week of heavy, positive coverage from one end of the state to the other. His campaign rollout included a Webcast announcement, slots on Larry King Live and the CBS Evening News, and interviews with more than three dozen newspaper, TV, radio, and Web outlets in every major media market of the state.

Nearly all duly reported the money line of Brown’s campaign mantra: that he is the most qualified candidate because of his “insider’s knowledge (and) outsider’s mind.”

A sure bet to win his party nomination against token opposition, Brown’s challenge will be to overcome the public’s abhorrence of career politicians. In the Tea Party era, his long years of experience — in which he’s held almost every local and state office except mosquito abatement district commissioner — represent a target-rich environment for opposition researchers and the press alike.

But Whitman, who’s running far ahead of Poizner in the GOP contest, has her own liabilities; the most reviled cultural icon of the moment, after politicians, is perhaps the CEO. Despite this, Whitman offers herself as the candidate of business experience; with her gimlet-eyed plan to can thousands of state employees, and massive media campaign fueled by her personal fortune; however, she runs the risk of looking out of touch with recession-stricken middle class voters.

“I would say that I’m a lot closer to the average Californian than these mega-millionaires and billionaire Republicans who have just a whole different resource base and life experience,” Brown argued.

The “mega-millionaire” in his reference is Poizner, who like Whitman is a Silicon Valley success story. He has been tacking hard right in his effort to overcome eMeg’s huge lead in the polls, appealing to the conservatives who traditionally dominate the vote in GOP primaries. In recent days he has disavowed his own past support for a 2000 ballot measure making it easier to pass local school bond measures, and also rejected his previous backing for public funding of abortions for poor women.

“I am a true conservative,” Poizner said, in winning the endorsement of the right-wing California Republican Assembly, which Ronald Reagan once termed “the conscience of the Republican Party.”

As a political matter, should Poizner win the nomination, his positioning would make it trickier to move to the center for the general election, in a bid for the votes of independents who hold the balance of power in general election campaigns. Whitman has been more cautious in her courtship of conservatives, refusing, for example, to back her GOP rival’s call for sweeping tax cuts, and maintaining her position in favor of taxpayer-financed abortions.

With significantly less fanfare than Brown’s noisy entry into the race, Poizner last week launched his first multi-million-dollar round of media buys, including a spot attacking Whitman as a “liberal.” As Brown waits to see who his fall opponent will be, the only thing certain on the Republican side is that the two candidates will shatter all previous records for campaign spending.

THIS JUST IN: Just more than a year after defeating Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson to win his first term representing the South Coast in the Legislature, GOP State Senator Tony Strickland has announced he’s running for State Controller.


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