Jerry Brown's official entrance into the governor's race Tuesday begins to frame a key question about who should lead California through its most difficult period in decades:
Should the next governor come with deep knowledge of how Sacramento works or bring a fresh approach crafted outside the political system?
The 71-year-old Brown is billing himself as the experienced veteran of the race, albeit one with "an outsider's mind" to go with a 40-year record in public service that includes stints as governor, mayor of Oakland and the state's current attorney general.
"The state is in serious trouble," Brown said in his online candidacy announcement, "and the next governor must have the preparation and the knowledge and the know-how to get California working again. That's what I offer, and that's why I'm declaring my candidacy for governor."
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Republican candidate Meg Whitman, on the other hand, touts a career spent largely in the business world, including serving as CEO of the online auction firm eBay.
Whitman emphasized that difference in experience in her response to Brown's announcement.
"I have spent my career in the private sector, creating jobs and delivering results," Whitman said in a written statement. "Jerry Brown has had a 40-year career in politics which has resulted in a trail of failed experiments, undelivered promises, big government spending and higher taxes."
Poizner takes to TV
The third major candidate, Republican Steve Poizner, says he presents the best of both worlds, having started Silicon Valley tech companies and then worked for the past three years as the state's insurance commissioner.
At practically the same time as Brown's announcement, Poizner launched his advertising campaign Tuesday with a TV spot painting him as the true conservative in the race.
"There's three very different choices in the election," said Poizner press secretary Bettina Inclan. "One is a career politician, the other is a rookie, and then there's Steve Poizner who has the balance of both the private and public sector and who can bring the experience of finding solutions for California."
In public opinion polls, voters have split on whether they prefer political or private-sector experience in their statewide candidates even as they agree that the state's future looks dark, said Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan research firm the Public Policy Institute of California.
Neither incumbent politicians nor captains of industry are necessarily beloved by voters in the current economy.
A December poll by the institute found that an equal share of likely voters – 43 percent of respondents – named experience in elected office as the most important qualification for holding statewide office as those who preferred experience running a business.
The poll results split along party lines, with 60 percent of Democrats favoring elected-office experience and 61 percent of Republicans choosing business know-how.
Voters want answers
More than four-fifths of likely voters said the state was going in the wrong direction, the poll found.
"At the end of the day, this year, what Californians are going to value the most is somebody who has answers for our economic and fiscal challenges for California and who has the best proposals for turning the state around," Baldassare said.
Voters such as Sacramento resident Winifred Robinson, a Republican, said the experience question depended on the qualities of the individual candidate.
"Someone fresh coming in might come in with new ideas that haven't been tried, but they aren't good ones either," Robinson said.
California voters have faced similar choices before. Former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis won his primary against two wealthy opponents in 1998 on the slogan "Experience Money Can't Buy," – only to be recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a celebrity with a spotty voting record who had never held elective office.
Brown raised that fear in his candidacy announcement by warning voters not to take a risk on "an outsider who knows virtually nothing about state government."
"We've tried that, and it doesn't work," Brown said. "We've found that not knowing is not good."
Blast from Brown's past
Whitman's campaign hit back Tuesday afternoon by distributing snippets from a 2003 Los Angeles Times story quoting Brown apparently downplaying the importance of experience in the governor's office.
"Most governors don't know that much about the workings of state government," the story quotes Brown saying. "They figure it out. They have bevies of aides that are running around doing talking points and issues memos."
Whether voters care about Brown's long-ago utterances, however, remains to be seen, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton.
"I don't think this election is going to turn on what what happened in the '70s," Sonenshein said. "It's going to turn on which party's voters are more enthusiastic and the role of government in California and nationwide as framed by the debate over health care and other issues."
Brown's policies to come
What's certain is that Brown's announcement, along with Poizner's ads, kicked off in earnest a race that had been marked by both Brown's and Poizner's reluctance to ramp up their campaigns too early.
For months, Brown has avoided taking clear positions on major issues such as the state's budget crisis, prisons or schools, arguing that he was not yet a candidate.
Starting this week, Brown must start filling in the policy blanks with voters, said Democratic strategist Andrew Acosta, whose business partner Roger Salazar is helping to run an independent expenditure committee targeting Whitman and other Republicans.
Brown began doing that Tuesday by promising, in the only clear policy announcement of his speech, that "there will be no new taxes unless you the people vote for them."
"At some point, voters are going to want to know the vision that Jerry Brown has for the state moving forward," Acosta said. "Jerry Brown still conjures up a lot of images in the past because of his (history) in public office. This is an opportunity for him to articulate that vision."