WASHINGTON — THE WORD from California that former Gov. Jerry Brown is considering a third run for the presidency next year, instead of seeking a Senate seat, will no doubt run into the criticism that as a two-time loser in the White House sweepstakes he'll be wasting his time.
That may turn out to be so, but if Brown should run again and lose, it will not be because he has displayed an excess of #F Potomac Fever. More likely, a third Brown loss would result from an inability to shake the public's perception of him as Governor Moonbeam, the political space cadet who to many seems to be off on some other planet with far-out ideas.
No two-time loser for the presidency contemplating a third try, such as Brown or Jesse Jackson, nor any one-time loser advised to duck the 1992 election rather than risking going into the the 1996 election as a two-time loser, such as Sen. Albert Gore or House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, should be deterred on that account.
Although it is seldom remembered today, Ronald Reagan lost two bids for the Republican presidential nomination, in 1968 as well as in 1976, before grabbing the brass ring in 1980. Months before the 1968 Republican National Convention, with Reagan publicly denying any national candidacy, a Reagan documentary PTC was shown in key primary states. One of the points it made was that Reagan in 1966 had beaten the man, Gov. Pat Brown, who had beaten Richard Nixon, the 1968 Republican front runner, in Nixon's luckless 1962 bid for the California governorship.
The television documentary was run repeatedly on the final weekends of the Wisconsin, Nebraska and Oregon primaries and the best Reagan could do was a high of 23 percent in Nebraska. But he remained the hope of some Southern and Western Republicans to stop Nixon at the convention, all the while professing not to be a real candidate. At Miami Beach, however, the California delegation "drafted" him into open candidacy and he worked the southern-state caucuses diligently, though in vain as Nixon, as the center candidate with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York on the left, sewed up the nomination.
This rather dismal 1968 performance by Reagan did nothing, however, to impair his second, more serious bid for the Republican nomination against incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, a challenge Reagan nearly pulled off, or his third, successful, effort in 1980.
Nixon, too, demonstrated the fallacy of the two-time loser curse, winning the Republican nomination and election in 1968 after having lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the governorship to Brown two years later. Nixon's supposedly crippling loser image was erased in a single night in 1968 in his sweeping victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary, and little was heard of it thereafter.
A decision by Jerry Brown to seek the presidency again would actually relieve him of going before the voters of California in the 1992 Senate race as a three-time loser -- two failed presidential bids in 1976 and 1980 and a loss for the Senate to the present governor, Pete Wilson, in 1982. There is considerable sentiment in California, in fact, that Brown might fair better as a national candidate again than in a re-run for the Senate in a state that
may have had its fill of him.
As for Jesse Jackson, facing the prospect of becoming a three-time loser in presidential politics is not likely to deter him if he judges that his role in the Democratic Party, and toward his predominantly black constituency, will be strengthened by a third consecutive candidacy.
On the other hand, when George McGovern recently decided that he would not run for president again, concern that he would be marked as the Harold Stassen of the Democratic Party -- a candidate perennially running with no chance of winning -- was definitely a factor. McGovern technically had already run three times for the presidency, as a stand-in of sorts for the tragically ended candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 as well as in his successful 1972 bid for the Democratic nomination and a well-received but losing comeback attempt in 1984.
The important thing, however, is not how many times a candidate runs, but whether voters still take him seriously. And doubts can easily be dispelled by winning somewhere, as Nixon, Reagan and even that two-time loser (for the Senate and president) with the "wimp image," George Bush, have clearly proved.