LOS ANGELES -- A few weeks ago, Jerry Brown pulled a presidential campaign out of his hat. And now, as if by magic, the former California governor has materialized as the favorite in early polling.
The swamis of presidential politics say this is just an illusion, a function of the fact that Mr. Brown's name is quite well known while his potential rivals are still unfamiliar to the public. They predict that his third presidential try will end in defeat, like the ones in 1976 and 1980.
On its face, his unannounced candidacy seems an audacious levitation act. There are no visible means of organizational or financial support, and his self-imposed $100 limit on contributions won't make it any easier to run nationwide.
But Mr. Brown -- formally Edmund G. Brown Jr. -- doesn't sound discouraged.
"This is a campaign of surprise," he proclaimed with a tiny gleam in his eye as he stiff-armed a crowd of reporters at a Democratic gathering in Southern California last week.
One of the shrewdest media manipulators of modern politics, Mr. Brown is the only contender in the race refusing to answer questions from the press. For now.
What he is doing, quite simply, is running for president by running against everything Americans say they hate about politics: special-interest PACs and negative campaigns, out-of-touch incumbents and 30-second spots, fat-cat contributors and selfish lobbyists, high-priced consultants and superficial reporters.
It's an in-your-face strategy against his old political comrades, one that found him last weekend attacking the non-aggression pact between the two major parties on the issue of a congressional pay raise while a co-signer of that agreement, Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, sat beside him on stage.
Although he has yet to venture far from his West Coast home, he's road-testing his feisty stump speech in appearances before receptive crowds, such as labor union audiences. He also faxed a lengthy manifesto to past supporters, political writers and others around the country, announcing the formation earlier this month of a presidential exploratory committee.
His anti-politics message, say analysts, is a powerful one for the 1990s, a well-timed slam at a political system that seems to turn more and more voters off every day.
"I don't sell Jerry Brown short," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster based in Los Angeles. "Does he have a lot of negatives? Sure. Are there questions about his level of performance, about his consistency? Sure. But he is a smart guy who is going to get a lot of attention. People may laugh at him, but the simple fact is, he's ahead now."
In a recent Gallup Poll, Mr. Brown was the first choice of 21 percent of Democratic voters across the country. No other contender registered higher than 10 percent in the survey, conducted Sept. 13-15 for Cable News Network.
Some Democratic insiders dismiss Mr. Brown as a hopeless long shot, ridiculing him and his backstage adviser, Patrick Caddell, as the "Thelma and Louise" of presidential politics. The implied criticism -- that they are off on some joy ride, as in the film story of the two women -- hits home when Mr. Brown veers off on tangents, as he did recently when he lectured Democratic leaders on the danger that their party may soon follow the Whig Party of the 19th century into oblivion.
Other politicians also question whether Mr. Brown can perform the kind of alchemy that may be required to convert the public's disgust with politics into his personal ticket to the White House. For that to happen, they say, would demand the kind of hocus-pocus that not even magicians Doug Henning or David Copperfield could conjure up: Mr. Brown would have to make his own past disappear.
That, in a sense, is what he seems to be trying to do. He is presenting himself as a reformed sinner, one who until last winter was chairman of the California Democratic Party, raising millions of dollars from the very "corrupt" elements he now deplores. (He quit that job to make a short-lived run for a U.S. Senate seat.)
Before pointing a finger at other politicians, he pokes himself.
"Certainly someone like myself who's been in [politics] for 20 years and been watching it for 45 years, I'm right there with everyone else," says Mr. Brown, who was born into a prominent (( political family, first elected to public office in the 1960s and twice elected governor of the nation's most populous state in the 1970s.
He criticizes Democratic and Republican politicians alike for spending "more time having gourmet dinners and talking to the very richest people" than trying to solve the problems of ordinary Americans.
This is not the first time Mr. Brown has carried an anti-politics message into the national arena. In 1976, he ran as a self-described new-generation presidential candidate, a mysterious newcomer from the Left Coast who spurned the trappings of power, spoke of "limits" and the need to protect "spaceship Earth."
Just 38 at the time, he swept the final six primaries but lost the nomination to another outsider, Jimmy Carter.
Back then, he anticipated many of the social waves that other Democrats are still trying to surf. He was a neo-populist before populism became fashionable again in the 1990s, and he's still at it today. The "America First" theme of his first campaign is being adopted by several rivals this time.
Now 53, he's still slim and boyish-looking, though a chunk of his dark brown hair has turned bright white at the temples.
He hasn't lost his penchant for cosmic rhetoric, either, although he can now poke fun at his own image for flakiness. He drew laughter from members of the Democratic National Committee by referring to his $100 limit on campaign contributions as another "far-out idea."
If, as expected, he formally enters the race next month, his presidential candidacy would be "not just a campaign, but a cause," he says. "Who knows how far we can carry it along? Maybe you only go 10 yards and you fall, and somebody else picks it up."
Many who once regarded him as the rising star of the 1970s believe the magic is gone. Awaiting his inevitable fall, they see this race as a last political hurrah. But predicting what Mr. Brown would do has always proved hazardous. As he himself pointed out in a long-ago campaign, he'll still be younger in 2000 than Ronald Reagan was when he was elected president.