FOR more than a decade, California's governors have kept the news media entertained. Dreamy Jerry Brown slept on the floor and dated a rock singer; Ronald Reagan delivered emotional speeches denouncing communism and celebrating America as a ``city on the hill.'' California's governors were also expected to lust for the Oval Office and usually did. Until Boring George came along. Political writers never thought Gov. George Deukmejian capable of hardball politics. And in some respects, they were right. Here was a man who blushed when reporters mentioned him as a presidential candidate. Mr. Deukmejian seemed incapable of a newsworthy thought or a political idea. Newsweek mocked him as that ``dreary, gray presence.'' Time called him ``competent, conservative, but above all dull.'' When the tall and awkward governor with the 5 o'clock shadow stood before thousands of party delegates at the 1984 convention to renominate George Bush, networks cut away to floor interviews, fearing their viewers might doze off.
But Deukmejian had himself to blame for his lackluster reputation. At a Republican Governors' Association conference last year, political consultant Ed Rollins and Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf urged the governors to ``be political.'' Deukmejian demurred, telling reporters that people might think of him as an aspiring kingmaker. This governor clearly did not have fire in his belly.
But kingmaker he may yet be. After four years as governor of California, Courken George Deukmejian has crawled out of hibernation to announce that he might run as a favorite-son presidential candidate in his state's June 1988 primary. If he should run and win, the hawk-nosed governor, known to his family as ``Corky,'' could dominate the New Orleans nominating convention and hold the trump card for his ideological and political soulmate, George Bush. Many party regulars say they'll back him.
Last month California GOP Assemblyman Bill Leonard sent 2,000 letters to key Republican activists urging them to back a Deukmejian candidacy. California GOP chairman Clair Burgener predicted that Deukmejian's popularity would scare off the really serious GOP presidential aspirants, who would then bow to the governor's wishes.
In theory a Deukmejian candidacy could prevent a repeat of the major party bloodletting in 1964. Then, GOP factions loyal to Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller battled for the soul of the GOP. A favorite-son candidacy would shield state Republicans from any obligation to join a presidential camp.
California sent 176 delegates to Dallas in 1984 and will probably get an equally large allotment next year. Though California's June primary comes late in the presidential road race, next year's front-loaded schedule and the clear absence of a front-runner throws up enough unknowns to make Deukmejian's plan a credible - albeit political risky - one. Other states give primary contestants a percentage of delegates based on their performance at the polls. In California's primary, the winner takes all. If Deukmejian wins, he could position himself as a major broker in New Orleans and encourage talk about himself as of vice-presidential timber.
A story buried in the back pages of a recent Washington Post announced that Mr. Bush had chosen Larry Thomas, Deukmejian's press secretary and 1986 campaign manager, as his new spokesman. According to a press release, Mr. Thomas would take part in strategy sessions for Bush's expected run next year. You bet he will. If Deukmejian plays the favorite-son card and wins, Thomas will be there to help Bush negotiate for the Deukmejian kitty of favorite-son delegates. Thomas, who begins working with Bush next Monday, is sensitive to this. He told reporters recently that he purposely sat out favorite-son strategy sessions because ``it was a lot cleaner'' knowing Bush was considering him for the job. And Deukmejian has dismissed all suggestions that his possible candidacy is a front for Bush's California strategy. But the strengthened ties between Bush and Deukmejian should give Jack Kemp and Robert Dole pause when they consider going along with the favorite-son plan.
At a recent press conference in Washington Governor Deukmejian revealed that he would meet with Bush in a private session. When asked if his favorite-son candidacy would come up, ``the Duke'' smiled and said, ``I wouldn't be surprised if it was mentioned.''
Mark Ragan is a reporter with Copley News Service in Washington.