DIANNE FEINSTEIN COULD ROCK POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

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BY GEORGE SKELTON

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein says: “The bottom line is the election is in 2010. And I’ll make a decision at the beginning of the year.”

A decision about whether to run for reelection? No, her third term won’t be up until 2012. She’ll be deciding whether to run for governor.

You can almost feel the shudders and shock among the other Democrats gearing up to compete for governor when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is termed out in two years. Feinstein’s candidacy would be an earthquake on the California political landscape — likely burying the current front-runner, former governor and current state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

A private poll taken in mid-July shows Feinstein trouncing Brown 50% to 24% in a hypothetical Democratic primary. A third candidate, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, gets only 10%.

Veteran Democratic pollster Jim Moore assumed that no other Democrat would even bother to run if the popular Feinstein jumped in.

“I think she’ll definitely think long and hard about it,” says Bill Carrick, the senator’s longtime political strategist. “She’s extremely interested.”

But Feinstein also says, “I love the work in the Senate.”

And based on history, you’d have to figure the odds are against her running. She’s comfortable and effective in the Senate.

She’s on a path to chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee. Her last two reelection races have been cakewalks. And in two years she’ll be 77, not the usual age when one starts hustling for a new job.

Of course Brown isn’t much younger. He’ll be 72 then.

Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, always has coveted the governor’s office and yearned to rebuild and restore her native state to its historic luster.

“One thing that is attractive for me,” she says, is meeting the challenges of water, infrastructure, global warming and wildfires and “forging the future of this state.”

Feinstein ran for governor in 1990 and narrowly lost to then-U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson. In 1992, she won Wilson’s old Senate seat. She barely survived a bruising Republican challenge in 1994, a big year for the GOP nationally.

Four years later, she thought seriously about running again for governor. If she had, then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis surely would not have. But already under attack from hatchet men for Davis and Democratic airline mogul Al Checchi, Feinstein flinched.

Again in 2003, Feinstein was urged to run in the Davis recall election. If she had, it’s doubtful Schwarzenegger would have risked losing. But she didn’t, feeling that her candidacy would be an act of party treason.

Skip ahead to a few weeks ago. Feinstein was talking with a longtime friend and ally, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

Speier was struck by Feinstein’s continued interest in Sacramento issues and told Moore, who owns his own polling operation.

Curious about how’d she fare in a gubernatorial race, Moore inserted some Feinstein questions into a statewide survey.

It showed Feinstein’s popularity among all voters (53% favorable, 37% unfavorable) right up there with Barack Obama’s — higher than Hillary Clinton’s and Schwarzenegger’s, and much higher than Brown’s (41%-32%). Half the people surveyed had no opinion of Garamendi. Two other potential Democratic candidates — San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell — were even less known. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s rating was a net negative: 24% favorable, 32% unfavorable.

Leaving out Feinstein and matching up everybody else in a Democratic primary, Moore found that Brown finished ahead with 31%, trailed by Newsom, 19%; Villaraigosa, 12%; Garamendi, 9%, and O’Connell, 9%. When Feinstein was pitted against Brown and Garamendi, the senator easily carried both ends of the state and all age groups.

The poll was leaked to San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross. Feinstein declined to comment.

Then on Sunday, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote a Chronicle column saying that Feinstein’s polling marks were “driving all the other wannabe candidates crazy.”

If Feinstein “does get in,” Brown continued, “it’s over, at least on the Democratic side. Everybody, and I mean everybody, steps out.”

I called Brown and asked whether he thought Feinstein should run. “Sure,” he replied, “because she would win.”

But she’d have to give up her beloved Senate seat, I noted. “There are 100 of those,” he answered. “There’s only one California governor.”

I phoned Feinstein and asked her what was up.

“Look,” she answered, “if I were at a place where I said, ‘Gee, this is really attractive, I’m going to run’ — but I’m not there. I have no reason to be coquettish. I’d tell you.”

She said she’d decide after New Year’s 2010. But that might be too late, I interjected, to scare off the competition. “Well,” she replied confidently, “I don’t know that I have to clear the field. I would expect to have a spirited primary.”

Feinstein did concede that “the one hard part in the Senate is going and coming” from Washington to California. “It’s an 8 1/2 -hour commute.” San Francisco is 90 minutes from Sacramento via CHP chauffeur.

And she went on about California’s problems: “Think back, there’s been no major water infrastructure built since Pat Brown was governor. Everything’s drying up. . . . California sort of rests on its laurels. . . . You’ve got to move people, you’ve got to move goods. . . . I’d love to be the governor who builds the high-speed rail.”

She’s one Democrat, a moderate pragmatist, who could receive agriculture and business support.

Once she was elected, there’d be a minimum of on-the-job training — or on-the-job failing. She understands the problems, the solutions and the levers of power.

“Let me tell you something,” Carrick says. “Everybody would snap to if she were governor. Her photo-ops would be bill signings. She’s a tough taskmaster who gets things done.”

She’d be the strongest candidate and probably the strongest governor.

Another window of opportunity is opening for Feinstein. It’s wide and undoubtedly her last.

See Related: CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR 2010

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