As the age of Arnie ends, Governor Moonbeam bids for return to power

Former hippy who led California 30 years ago hopes to run embattled state again

After eight years in the hands of a cigar-chomping Hollywood action hero known as the "Governator," the voters of California have a colourful new front-runner in the race to run their state: a 71-year-old former hippy who studied Zen Buddism, stood for President three times, and boasts the exotic nickname "Governor Moonbeam".

Jerry Brown, one of the great survivors of US politics and a perennial hero of the libertarian left, yesterday announced his bid for the Democratic nomination in November's election to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger. He becomes the party's only serious candidate in the battle to take over an office once held by Ronald Reagan.

"Our state is in serious trouble and the next Governor must have the preparation, and the knowledge and the knowhow to get California working again," said his videotaped speech released online. "That's what I offer, and that's why I'm declaring."

Initial polls gave him an instant lead of between 5 and 10 per cent over his two potential Republican rivals, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, whose relative inexperience was repeatedly referenced in Mr Brown's speech.

If he can keep his nose in front during what is already shaping up to be a bruising soap-opera of a race, Mr Brown's victory would open a compelling new chapter in an unconventional life story.

The son of Edmund Brown, a Democratic politician from San Francisco, his CV already includes two terms as Governor, in the 1970s. Mr Brown is only allowed to stand this time because of a legal technicality: term limits were not introduced until 1990.

Those spells earned him a reputation for quirky liberalism. When first elected in 1974, Brown refused to live in the Governor's mansion, renting a small flat to save California money, replaced his official limousine with a modest Plymouth.

His private life filled endless column inches, and the then-flamboyant bachelor (who only got round to marrying in 2005) dated a string of high-profile women, including the Latino pop star Linda Ronstadt.

The nickname "Governor Moonbeam" was invented when he endorsed the once-wacky (but now mainstream) idea of sending a shuttle into space to carry California's communications networks. It stuck because of his new-age beliefs.

After leaving office in 1983, he travelled to India, where he spent several months working with patients at one of Mother Teresa's hospices in Calcutta, and Japan, where he studied Zen Buddism under Yamada Koun Zenshin.

On the world stage, Mr Brown is perhaps best known for his flirtations with national politics. In 1976 and 1980, he ran for President, but failed to make much headway. In 1992, he ran Bill Clinton a close second in a bad-tempered race that lasted all the way to the Democratic convention.

In more recent years, he has been a surprisingly right-wing Mayor of Oakland, and a relatively liberal Attorney General of California.

"He comes in with a big advantage: he's already well known, particularly among older voters, who like him very much," said Phil Trounstine, founder of the political website Calbuzz. "Brown has two-to-one approval ratings among independents and a three-to-one among Democrats. He's also popular with Latinos and the black community."

Brown is seeking to take over a troubled office. Unemployment is around 12 per cent in California, and the state's deficit – the difference between its tax revenues and what it spends – is roughly $20bn (£13bn). State Democrats are reluctant to cut spending, while Republicans have so far been able to block any meaningful tax rises.

"This partisanship is poisonous. Political posturing has replaced leadership," said Mr Brown, who was due to tour television studios to flesh out his ticket last night. "The next governor must have the preparation and the knowledge and the knowhow to get California working again."

Mr Brown's biggest problem, in the depths of a recession, could be financial. His likely opponent, the former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, is expected to spend more than $100m on the battle. He has so far raised just $13m, though does boast the support of the wealthy Hollywood elite, including Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.