In latest touch in surprising year, Brown may have lost 'Moonbeam' label

March 05, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. may have finally shed the "Governor Moonbeam" title that has trailed him for so many years. After his surprise victory in Tuesday's Colorado primary, on the heels of a strong showing in Maine last week, the maverick presidential candidate was yesterday being called "the new phenom."

The unorthodox politician with the turtle-neck shirts and the much-touted 800 number has added another twist to a campaign that's been relentless in confounding pollsters, pundits and politicians themselves.

"I'm just getting confuseder and confuseder," joked former Democratic National Committee Chairman John C. White. "This may be the most surprising campaign year I've ever seen. You could have owned my house if you had told me six months ago that Paul Tsongas would be in the position he's in. And you could have owned the lot it sits on if you'd told me Jerry Brown would win Colorado."

Indeed, just as voters were getting used to the idea of the anti-chic, charismaless Paul E. Tsongas emerging as a front-runner, Mr. Brown, the candidate at the bottom of most pre-primary season polls, the bad boy of the debates, has pulled through as a new player.

"He's earned some respect," says the political consultant Greg Schneiders. "He's earned some attention. But it's still a long way from where he is now to actually winning significant primaries."

Even so, Democratic strategists say the race has now come down to two front-runners -- Mr. Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator, and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton -- and a wild card in the form of Jerry Brown.

Mr. Brown, who studied Zen Buddhism in Japan and worked with Mother Teresa in India after losing a 1982 Senate race, has run aggressively against the political system, against Washington, against corruption -- most pointedly against the influence of money on campaigns. He has limited his own contributions to $100, and calls for a flat 13 percent tax rate.

Many political observers explain his appeal and surprising success much the way they explain the surprising momentum of the insurgent campaign on the Republican side. Jerry Brown is to the Democrats what Patrick J. Buchanan is to the Republicans, they say: a protest vote.

"He gives vent to the anger a significant number of people feel," says Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who endorsed Governor Clinton. "He's more of a message candidate than a specific alternative. He's not as far out of sync as Buchanan is, but they're both vehicles for people to express anger at the system."

And his pro-environment, anti-establishment "We the People" message is also something that appeals to the young, liberal, idealistic voters that Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, calls "the Ivory Soapers -- 99 and 44/100ths percent pure."

Mike Royko, the Chicago syndicated columnist who came up with the "Governor Moonbeam" label (and then renounced it in 1980 after being impressed by Mr. Brown's speech at the Democratic convention), believes the candidate's Colorado victory is a response to his ecological message. "I assume it means a lot of people in Colorado like the sun and mountain breezes and clear water," says Mr. Royko.

In fact, Mr. Brown is still not viewed as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.

"It would be penning a suicide note to nominate Jerry Brown," Mr. Sabato says. "My guess is they'll just give him the same perquisites as the other candidates. He'll address the convention, he can shout his 800 number a couple more times and then go off to India again or some seminary."

But his wild card candidacy, now being equated with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's role in the 1988 campaign, is likely to have an effect on the Democratic race -- if only by keeping it an open race.

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