When the pieces of the Democratic Party's post-election disarray are sorted out, how will twice-thwarted presidential contender, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. fit in the political puzzle?
Given the sizable upheaval caused within the Democratic leadership by the Nov. 4 Republican rout, it is obviously too early to make any final judgment. Still, there are many observers who believe that the temperance of "Jerry" Brown's long-held "small is beautiful" philosophies may be a new force among Democrats in a dawning era of voter conservatism.
As California pollster Mervin Field notes, "If ever a guy was helped by what happened Tuesday, [it's Jerry Brown]. . . . His turf has opened up considerably.
"He's very well-positioned for future office," says Mr. Field, who points out that Mr. Brown's conservative economic philosophies are right in step with what voters signaled Nov. 4, while "he is futuristic on the kinds of issues that were not at issue Tuesday."
Mr. Brown, for his part, has -- in the wake of his stinging defeat in this year's primaries -- begun recouping ground lost locally. And he makes no secret of the fact that he still scans -- and plans for -- the national horizon.
Interviews with more than a dozen aides, politicians, and gubernatorial analysts, indicate Brown's next step is most likely to be a 1982 run for the US Senate. However, the question of whether the two-term governor will play a vital role in the future of both the nation and the Democratic Party leaves observers sharply split:
* No, say longtime skeptics and virulent critics who shake their heads in exasperation. They hurl with finality the barbed monosyllable that echoed again and again during Brown's most recent presidential mission: "flake."
* Yes, others insist, with the most emphatic assurances coming from Brown aides now charting a nuts-and- bolts political course for a man who in the past has made no secret of his contempt for party politicking.
* Wait and see, argue many politicians and seasoned Brown observers who contend that the test of the governor's mettle will not only be how well he puts into practice the lessons of defeat -- but for how long.
It was a chastized Brown who came quietly home last April to a peeved electorate and a hostile Democratic- controlled state legislature which had overridden his vetoes so many times that Brown had become the most overridden governor in state history.
Governor Brown had learned, as chief of staff Gray Davis puts it, that "success is not a solitary venture." Taking that lesson to heart, the Brown that emerged from presidential defeat suddenly became a "team player" -- to the skepticism of many observers and the gratification of long-snubbed party regulars.
Over the past six months the governor has hurled himself with fresh zeal into the task at hand: traveling up and down the state, holding scores of meetings with small groups of voters; raising money for Democratic candidates; returning phone calls and writing thank-you notes -- in short, playing the meat-and-potatoes politics he once so cavalierly eschewed.
The work has begun to pay off. By last July, according to a California poll, Brown's negative rating among voters had dropped from 47 to 30 percent, with 43 percent crediting him with doing a fair job. And relations with state and local politicians are also improving.
"People are basically delighted with his style now," says Democratic assemblyman Mike Roos of the legislature's attitude toward the governor. "They're just delighted that now he's bargaining with them. He's cajoling them, wooing them . . . listening to their ideas."
What is more, Brown has also moved to warm his rather icy relations with the business community, making appearances before a number of pin-striped groups.
He speaks to them, as he does to others, of "a new governing coalition" to be formed among business, labor, and government. He stresses the need for innovation to help meet the demands of the future -- and recently told reporters he intends to form a state commission on investigation.
Brown's current tack is an abrupt change for a politician used to the whirlwind methods that marked his stunning victories as a latecomer in the 1976 primaries. But whether it will prove to be a successful change of course remains to be seen. There are many hurdles in his way.
Brown's new role as a team player, as effective as it may be so far, is still in its honeymoon phase. Although even he admits that success outside the party structure is difficult, if not impossible, many observers question how long the governor will be able to practice what others have long preached.
"It's one thing to be a team player for a short while, but he's going to have to stay within the system if he wants to make it," says one veteran Brown analysts, who asks not to be identified.
"And doing that is certainly contradictory to everything he stands for. It's totally foreign to everything in his heart," says this observer. "Whether he can swallow that, and plunge ahead in the system, well, that's something only Jerry Brown knows."
Brown has drawn considerable praise for the depth and daring of the ideas he raises on an often shallow political scene. Even Mike Royko, the syndicated columnist and archcritic of Brown who long ago tagged Brown with the moniker, "Governor Moonbeam," recanted in the wake of Brown's thoughtful, although not overly well received, speech at last August's Democratic convention.
But the "flake" perception persists, even among many Californians, who are still likely to say, "I just don't know what the man stands for." And he is perceived by many to be a coldly intellectual opportunist who, as one observer notes, "has no feeler into the heart of the common man."
Brown aides agree that "translating his vision to the common man," as one staffer puts it, will be the crux of the governor's new thrust. And they predict that with patient persistance, Brown will leave the cosmic image behind.
"I think his future rests largely in his own hands," says chief of staff Davis. "The real challenge for Jerry Brown is to show that notwithstanding his vision and his forward- looking views, he's in touch with mainstream America.
"I guess . . . how can you put it?" he asks and adds with a wryness drawn from experience, "Prophets are rarely elected president."