Jerry Brown shows he can make an impact without spending a dime

By Steven Harmon - Bay Area News Group

SACRAMENTO — Jerry Brown's famous frugality was matched last week by his taste for the unpredictable, foreshadowing the kind of wily campaign he'll need to employ to overcome the personal wealth of either of the two Republican gubernatorial candidates in the fall.

Brown came up with a pair of well-timed maneuvers, aimed primarily at GOP front-runner Meg Whitman in an attempt to knock her off stride: calling for a three-way pre-primary debate, and becoming the first of the gubernatorial candidates to sign a Bay Area News Group pledge to release tax returns for the past 10 years.

And it didn't cost a dime in paid advertising, said Corey Cook, a political-science professor at the University of San Francisco.

"He's got to do it on the strength of his personality and his ability to be creative and being able to get free media," Cook said. "He's got to outthink her and out-message her because he won't be able to keep up with her on the airwaves."

Only a week ago, Democrats were fretting over Whitman's decided monetary advantage over Brown, worried that she was ready to turn her attention to him even before the Republican primary ended — and that he appeared to have no ready answer for the $150 million she could potentially spend on the race.

"That debate thing was brilliant — it was an example of something that was easy and affordable and that put Whitman on the defensive," said Robert Cruickshank, public policy director at the liberal Courage Campaign, who'd criticized Brown early for failing to assert himself more in the campaign. "What we've all been saying is: Look, you don't have to spend very much money to get coverage and drive the campaign narrative."

It's a developing narrative: The billionaire former CEO of eBay is hiding behind her glossy ads and high-price consultants. And it may have been aided a bit by a newly announced fraud probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission targeting Goldman Sachs, the finance giant for whom Whitman served as a board member for a year and with whom she has major investments.

And, in a slight hiccup in the campaign's horse race trajectory — in which Whitman appeared to be coasting toward the general election — several polls showed Whitman's Republican rival, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, reviving his dismal prospects by shaving some 20 percentage points off her 50-point lead.

Poizner's recent torrent of attack ads against Whitman may serve to tighten up the race, and will likely ensure that Brown won't have to worry about a TV campaign from Whitman until the primary is over.

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