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Jim Boren: Who's the next governor?

If California's politicians can't run the state very well, we should at least be entertained as they run the Golden State into the side of Mount Whitney.

That was what Californians got in the 2003 recall election. It was fun, and not just because actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was making his political debut.

The field included pornographer Larry Flynt, one-time child actor Gary Coleman, porn star Mary Carey and a woman who sold thong underwear on her Web site

We needed the amusement in a state that had lost its way. This campaign played out on the late-night shows, as well as in the political press.

But then California politics began to be like the food we eat when we're in the hospital -- bland old stuff that's not very tasty. The Democrats put up boring Phil Angelides against Schwarzenegger in 2006, and Angelides got crushed by the Governator.

Quickly, though, Schwarzenegger's act got tiresome, and the Legislature refused to confront the state's most serious problems. So the public got bad government, with no personality.

But next year's governor's race could be different. The personalities of the potential candidates are as diverse as an "American Idol" audition, and they seem committed to attacking the state's problems.

Leading the way is Attorney General Jerry Brown, the former governor who wants the job again

Last week, the Democrat admitted that in his spare time, he does some late-night "plotting" on the governor's race. "I'm thinking about running."

Then consider the rest of the Democratic possibilities.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- both having repaired their private lives -- may run. They bring glamour to the race, as well as California's always contentious north/south split.

Is San Francisco the state's coolest city, or is it Los Angeles?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has also toyed with running, and would be a big factor in a Democratic primary. But she probably won't leave the Senate where she has increased her clout.

Feinstein's pattern has been to float her name for governor and then pull back. There's no reason to believe that will change.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi says he's running, but he has little chance in the Democratic field, and he may run for re-election next year.

It would be an act of staying in government because he has nothing else to do. The lieutenant governor's post is the state's only constitutional office that has no clout.

The Republican side will be interesting. Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, may be lining up against Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief executive. Both are out of Silicon Valley, and they have the techies excited.

Poizner got rich by putting satellite positioning devices on cell phones and Whitman made her fortune running the auction site.

Former Rep. Tom Campbell of San Jose also may run in the GOP primary.

This potential field is rich, both monetarily and in terms of the candidates' personalities.

I sat at the table the other day with Jerry Brown before his lunch speech to the California Newspaper Publishers Association in Sacramento.

He admitted that his term as mayor of Oakland gave him a good perspective on government. At that level, he had to put gang members in jail, fix potholes and redevelop Oakland's downtown.

During his luncheon speech, Brown delivered a sometimes humorous review of state government and also looked back at his tenure as governor.

He said his "era of limits" theme in 1976 is a message that everyone seems to be preaching now as the nation tries to pull back from the financial excesses of Wall Street as well as government and consumers putting everything on credit cards.

"What I meant was you have to make choices," he said, and government can't do everything.

Next year's governor's race should not only be entertaining, but also provide a high-profile debate on the role of government in the 21st century. The runoff election could pit a reformed career politician against a very successful business leader.

Voters won't be able to say they don't have a clear choice.

Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor. Reach him at jboren@fresnobee.com.

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