As political life goes, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had a good day
yesterday. He jetted south from the city by the bay to meet up with his
new buddy President Clinton to tour a green building in Los Angeles.
The cameras clicked and the two exchanged laughs. Then,
according to the L.A. Times,
the pair talked with a group of students about green energy and jobs
before heading to a fundraiser that, with Clinton by Newsom's side, surely
made for a pocket-padding evening.
Read between the lines, though, and the picture doesn’t look quite as rosy for him. Sure, it’s impressive for the mayor of America’s 12th-largest city to be posing for pictures with a former—and still popular—Democratic president. But Newsom’s problem is one of poor timing, which reveals many more weaknesses in his campaign than strengths.
With more than a year to go before California’s 2010 gubernatorial showdown, Newsom had raised just $1.2 million as of this summer when fundraising numbers were last disclosed. It might be a respectable amount for governors' races in other states, but it's chump change next to his leading opponent's $7.4 million in the bank. Even his would-be GOP rival (in a state that traditionally goes blue) has outraised him more than sixfold. Several Democratic insiders who once believed Newsom had one of the best shots at the crown now tell him that to maintain his credibility, he’ll need at the very least a few more million in the bank before the end of the year. If not, he’ll look like a weak candidate who, perhaps suspiciously, can’t build momentum.
Which explains why he’d call in Bill Clinton, who endorsed Newsom late last month. By any measure, Clinton is a pretty big gun, arguably the biggest nod in Democratic politics next to Barack Obama. Clinton could, and will, help Newsom raise some serious aforementioned cash. But this early? The former president has been known to work wonders as a closer, yet tapping him as an opener instead almost proves that Newsom’s flame is in danger of going out. A powerful endorsement is something normally saved to be witnessed by the maximum number of cameras and undecided voters. Used wisely, it’s a valuable weapon: if Newsom were locked in a dead heat with a primary or even general-election opponent, a thumbs up from Clinton could give him a boost. But rolling out the big guns before most candidates have even declared strikes of desperation, rather than strength.
For his part, Clinton’s interest in the race might not be purely
benevolent. While he took a strong liking to Newsom early in the young
politician’s career, he also crafted a strong dislike for Newsom’s
most formidable opponent, Jerry Brown, who has yet to
formally declare, but is raising money and leads handily in polls. Brown, who was California's governor once already, ran against Clinton for the presidential
nomination in 1992, a race that had less than cordial moments. Clinton and his camp have maintained that supporting Newsom is solely a reflection of how the former president feels about the mayor and his ideas.
Still, it's tough to imagine that Newsom, who once rode high as the Golden State's golden boy, could run out of gas too early. Just two years ago he was being mentioned as a possible heir to Sen. Dianne Feinstein's seat if the senior senator had chosen to run for governor in 2010 (some state poll numbers still suggest she'd do well, although she hasn't indicated any intent to run). So what happened to Newsom? The mayor might be popular in San Francisco, but most of California isn't like San Francisco, especially the state's more conservative Central Valley, parts of which have fortified in opposition to Obama. Not to mention one of Newsom's signature issues: gay marriage, which the state swatted down in the passage of Prop 8 last fall. A profile by NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Darman earlier this year illustrated Newsom's bet on progressive thinking catching on, but he has yet to be proven right.
It's possible that Newsom could still bounce back—anything's possible, really. Time is certainly on his side, but the credibility battle is only getting steeper. If he does survive, he'll owe Clinton more than a nice fruit basket for the early rescue. Although if Newsom finds himself in the same dubious position again, he'll have a tough time coming up with another "get out of jail free" card.