SACRAMENTO, Calif. Charismatic and politically bold, both San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seem like naturals to help Democrats reclaim the governor's office in 2010.
But there's a formidable obstacle for the next generation eyeing the job: Former two-term governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown.
At 70, Brown has decades of experience and Democratic Party support behind him, as well as stints in nearly every top statewide post. Brown hasn't committed to running, but he has mused openly about seeking the job again and he raked in thousands of dollars in campaign contributions last month.
The 40-year-old Newsom launched the first stage of the contest between the old guard and the young bucks this past week when he announced formation of an exploratory committee to weigh a gubernatorial run. That allows him to start collecting cash and testing his name recognition beyond San Francisco, where he has gained national attention with his support of same-sex marriage.
Villaraigosa, 55, the first Hispanic elected speaker of the California Assembly, demurred Wednesday when asked about a possible gubernatorial run in 2010, while not ruling it out. "I am having a great time building the foundations on the issues of education, public safety, the environment, traffic, public transportation, jobs in the city," he said.
Villaraigosa is expected to win re-election to head the nation's second-largest city next year and is trying to carve a niche for himself on school reform. He's also likely to boost his national profile by campaigning for presumed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama this year.
Democrats are hoping to take back the governor's office often held by moderate Republicans like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Though it is still more than two years off, the race as it is shaping up now forces Democrats to decide whether they're ready to gamble on a splashy contender over a party stalwart, said Kareem Crayton, an assistant professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law.
"That's going to be the hard choice that Democrats have to make," Crayton said. "Do you go with the new fresh face or do you take the standby, tried and true?"
Obama's ascension to the Democratic presidential nomination over Hillary Rodham Clinton is already helping clear the way for leaders like Newsom and Villaraigosa by making it acceptable for them to not "wait their turn," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. Obama also has energized young Democrats, who are inclined to lean toward charismatic figures like the big-city mayors.
Rocky Fernandez, president of the California Young Democrats, said that doesn't mean younger party activists would shy away from a veteran like Brown. As attorney general, Brown has made his top priority environmental protection, which resonates strongly with younger voters.
"Jerry Brown has actually done a lot of work with young Democrats over the last few years and made himself available to us," said Fernandez, 30.
Democratic activist Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, ranks Brown No. 1 on his "Democratic Gubernatorial Race Rankings" blog. Newsom is second and Villaraigosa fourth, behind Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who has indicated he will run.
Newsom, according to Lehane, has already demonstrated he has a quality that matters to voters the courage to lead on an issue, even when it's politically unpopular. When he directed San Francisco clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, Newsom drew fire from party stalwarts like U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Newsom's new campaign Web site lists universal health care and education funding as his top issues.
Brown did not respond to calls seeking comment. A former adviser to Newsom, Peter Ragone, said Newsom was not available to talk.
Villaraigosa can claim credit for falling crime rates in a city plagued by gang violence, although Los Angeles continues to struggle with snarled traffic and affordable housing. But his plan to take control of city schools flopped after a court declared it unconstitutional; he is now seeking a smaller role. And last year he was forced to acknowledge an affair with a TV newscaster, leading his wife to file for divorce.
Newsom seems to have overcome the bad publicity last year from his affair with the wife of his political consultant and is set to marry for the second time later this month.
If elected, Brown would become both California's youngest and oldest elected governor. He was 36 when first elected governor in 1974; he'll be 72 in 2010. He is not prevented from seeking a third term as governor because his previous tenure in the Capitol ended well before the two-term limit for the office was enacted in 1990.
He also can bank on his family name: His father, Pat Brown, was governor from 1959 to 1967.
"In a one-on-one campaign against another Democrat, that other person has the potential to get very well known," said Republican media strategist Dan Schnur. "But in a field of five or six, Brown doesn't need a majority, and he can probably get the 30 or 35 percent just on sheer name recognition," Schnur said.
Associated Press Writer Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.