WASHINGTON -- Casting himself as a crusader for political reform, former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. dropped out of the 1992 California Senate race yesterday and into the 1992 Democratic presidential picture.
Mr. Brown, who filed papers yesterday in Washington forming an exploratory campaign committee, said that if he ran, his goal would be to liberate American democracy from the domination of corrupt politicians in both parties and their campaign consultants.
"What an irony that the spirit of democracy is bursting out all over the world, while in America democratic choice narrows and is rendered almost illusory," wrote the 53-year-old Californian, who says he's been inspired by the "anti-political politics" of President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia.
His penchant for futuristic thinking and cosmic rhetoric earned Mr. Brown the nickname "Governor Moonbeam" during two terms as chief executive of the nation's most populous state and two unsuccessful presidential tries, in 1976 and 1980.
Democratic analysts said he would be a long shot, even in a field of lesser-known candidates.
Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey is among at least five Democrats who appear ready to join the '92 race. Aides said yesterday that he would probably make his presidential plans known later this week.
Over the weekend, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia said he would announce his decision by Sept. 15. The nation's first elected black governor put his chances of running at "about 50-50."
Likely Democratic contenders include Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who formed an exploratory committee last month. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin is expected to announce his candidacy Sept. 15, joining former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts as the only formally declared candidate.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said he'll decide later this fall, and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has not flatly ruled out a '92 race. However, a growing number of prominent Democrats, including House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and Sens. Albert Gore Jr. and John D. Rockefeller IV, have removed their names from consideration. Their refusal, Mr. Brown said, helped lurehim back to national politics.
In a 10-page letter to supporters, released yesterday in Los Angeles, Mr. Brown said that "it is clear, now, that there is no national figure who is prepared to enter the presidential race and take on, not only George Bush, but the entire corrupt system including those entrenched Democratic politicians who have turned our party from a voice of opposition into a party of complicity."
He said he would run a grass-roots campaign, with a $100 cap on contributions, a calculated gamble that could seriously hinder his ability to put together a national organization.
William Carrick, who managed the 1988 Gephardt presidential campaign, likened Mr. Brown's third campaign to the 1984 comeback try by George S. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee, who won a surprising third-place finish in a crowded Iowa caucus field with an appeal to the party's liberal conscience, then quickly faded.
Mr. Brown was, until this week, an unannounced candidate in the crowded field of Democrats seeking to replace Sen. Alan Cranston, a scandal-scarred Democrat who is retiring next year. Although voter surveys made Mr. Brown an early favorite to win the Democratic primary next June, he trailed likely Republican opponents in the polls. His decision to withdraw from the race may well improve Democratic chances of holding the seat, said Mark diCamillo, managing editor of the Field Institute's non-partisan California Poll.
Mr. Brown, who draws support from blacks, Hispanics and liberal activists, might have benefited from an early presidential primary in California, which historically chooses its delegates at the end of the process, when the race has already been decided. However, attempts by Democratic Party leaders to move up the primary appear to have failed.