SACRAMENTO — Democrats are playing a parlor game as they map out the possibilities in the governor's race, asking such delicious questions as: If Lt. Gov. John Garamendi loses in his bid for the 10th Congressional seat, will he jump back into the governor's race?
Or, will U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Los Angeles, join the race as a Latina alternative to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who pulled out earlier? Or, will U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, finally make the leap, eschewing the seniority and leadership roles she has in the august chambers of the Senate?
It's not that Democrats are necessarily dissatisfied with the two presumed to be in the race — San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Jerry Brown — but they're accustomed to primary contests that at least start out with the look of a wild brawl.
"When this race first started, it looked like it would be too many candidates," said Tom Kersten, president of the Hayward Demos Democratic Club, which has a membership of about 200.
"I thought it would be a complete mess. But I'm shocked it's already gone down to two. A few more candidates would help to flesh out the issues. I just don't think we'll get a full debate on the critical issues."
Shirley Odou, the founding member of the 27-year-old Santa Clara County Democratic Club, said she was disappointed when Garamendi opted to run for Congress, and now is left wondering "if
Doubts about some of the baggage both candidates might carry into a general election has led to some nervousness among Democrats, said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic consultant.
"There's real hunger for moving back into the horseshoe," Maviglio said, referring to the governor's office, "so people are casting about."
Darry Sragow, another Democratic political consultant, said he's "picked up from a number of my Democratic friends that there's an interest in seeing another candidate ... that maybe there's somebody else worth looking at."
The problem is that, with 10 months to go before the primary, the window of opportunity is closing — if it hasn't already closed, observers said. That means that only a very few viable candidates could even think of making a late entrance, and they'd have to do it quickly.
Feinstein, with her ability to raise large sums of cash and her instant statewide recognition and popularity, would be the most viable, observers said. But she has all but closed the door on a run, having told friends that she is excited to be a part of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the first-ever woman chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the all-important Judiciary Committee at a time when President Barack Obama will likely make at least one more pick for the U.S. Supreme Court.
State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a former lawmaker from the East Bay, ex-Senate leader and ex-attorney general, has the ready cash — about $10 million in his campaign account — but has told colleagues he has no interest in running for governor — possibly out of deference to Brown's stronger statewide brand. Former State Controller Steve Westly, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, could use his personal wealth to make a quick impact. But, his inability to hit it off with Democratic activists en route to losing in the 2006 gubernatorial primary could be a fatal drawback, observers said.
Westly's experience could serve as a lesson for those who may be thinking of a late entry into the race. Westly entered a full year before the 2006 primary, poured in $34 million of his own money, spent a total of $84 million, and still lost the nomination battle to Phil Angelides, the former state treasurer who lost to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"(Westly) had a whole year and it wasn't enough time. He started too late," said Garry South, who managed Westly's campaign and is now managing Newsom's. "People are making commitments now. There's not a lot of time or space for someone to get involved in a way that gives you a shot."
Sanchez would be an intriguing addition to the race as the only woman and Latino, but she is preparing for a tough re-election race in her Orange County seat. Also, she hasn't impressed observers with her fundraising abilities and has very little statewide profile.
Even if the choice is limited, said Art Pulaski, the executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, the rank and file are not openly complaining.
"They've voted for both in large numbers when they ran for office in the past, so it's not as though they're viewed as unacceptable and are saying 'gee, we don't have anyone to support,'" Pulaski said. "They both represent significant change from the status quo and from the Republican candidates."
There will always be activists who want more candidates "for entertainment purposes," said Steven Glazer, a longtime political adviser to Brown. "But Democrats want a Democrat in the governor's office, and for many Democrats, that'll guide their view of the primary race."
The dynamic that's already beginning to develop in a two-man race is one of a young mayor flying the banner of youth and change against an experienced veteran of the political wars who knows his way around the Capitol.
A third candidate — one who would have a real shot — would alter those dynamics in multiple ways, said Sragow, the Democratic consultant.
"If the field broadens, it could be a very interesting, complex and unpredictable primary that produces history-changing results," Sragow said. "The underdog would stay out of the way and allow the top two to commit murder suicide."
That's what happened in 1998 when millionaires Al Checchi and Jane Harman ravaged each other through an on-air war, allowing Gray Davis to emerge from last in the polls to win the nomination.
Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101