SAN FRANCISCO -- These are hard times, discouraging times, in the Golden State, but the woman sitting in the rear of the private jet, picking at a vegetarian plate -- what else? -- seems the antidote to that pessimism.

"You need someone who can try to bring us together," Kathleen Brown is saying. "Our state could be Bosnia-Herzegovina, we've got so many languages, so many cultures. It's easy to divide us. The hard thing is bringing us together."

It has not taken much imagination in recent years to envision Brown doing just that, following in the footsteps of her father, Governor Pat, and brother, Governor Jerry, and presiding over the nation's most populous state. Since she won her first statewide race as treasurer in 1990, Brown's election as California's first female governor has had an air of inevitability about it. "Born to run," is how more than one national magazine has described her. And two weeks ago she made it official that she was in the race.

"There's been a lot of excitement brewing," says Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, the Washington-based group that raises funds for female candidates.

There is an unmistakable glamour to Brown's dark good looks and poise. But despite the Kennedyesque political family and the Hollywood connections that are part of Democratic politics in California, her attractiveness is more grounded. Four years ago Republicans tried to link Brown with her brother Jerry by branding her as "Sister Moonbeam." While there is a strong physical resemblance, the differences in manner are more striking: Jerry's eyes convey a slightly maniacal gleam and his conversations are more like diatribes; Kathleen engages a listener while seeming self-deprecating and eager to connect.

Whether voters in California are ready to reciprocate is the question at hand. As one of the nation's most widely anticipated 1994 campaigns begins in earnest, Brown's opponents, both Republicans and Democrats, argue that in a state this large with problems so complex, Brown's apparent virtues are really liabilities. People here have lost much of their swagger in a few short years as they have had to confront a dizzying succession of economic and natural disasters and divisive social issues such as immigration, race and crime. It is a volatile and unpredictable place that one out of three Californians now say they would leave if they had the chance, a remarkable turnaround for the state that has always embodied the American dream.

Nice, Brown's foes say, will not be enough. And they say it with that politely dismissive tone, invariably referring to her by her first name. "Of the three of them, I'd enjoy most having lunch with Kathleen," says veteran Republican campaign operative Ken Khachigian, when asked to describe Brown and her father and brother. "Just because I think it would be intelligent -- but breezy. But basically I think she's like that good Triple-A player who just cannot handle the slider in the bigs."

A Tough Campaign

However it's framed, the question of Brown's character, her preparation and ability to make hard choices will be the likeliest line of attack against her in the months ahead. But as her campaign plane approached San Francisco, the last stop of a two-day campaign trip, Brown seemed unruffled.

"I think toughness is in some ways a very sexist way of defining people," she said. "I'm plenty tough. ... But I don't think you have to be mean or rude to get to your goal." As for the niceness issue, "Guess what?" she said. "Most people in most elections vote for the people they like the most. Ask Ronald Reagan."

Pete Wilson, the man she hopes for the chance to run against, is no Ronald Reagan. A former mayor of San Diego and U.S. senator, he was governor when the recession hit and the bills came due. By the time he had finished getting a budget through, he was the father of a $7 billion tax increase that launched the anti-tax movement. His poll numbers have never recovered. But colorless as he might be, Wilson is known as a relentless campaigner, with an organization that's been together for years and a sharp-tongued spokesman, Dan Schnur, adept at keeping opponents off balance.

In the early skirmishing last year, Schnur and friends succeeded in putting Brown on the defensive, accusing her of having no specific reason for running other than her name. More recently, the Wilson forces made it clear that they will make Brown's opposition to the death penalty -- she says she would enforce it despite her personal views -- a major issue. "Pete Wilson wants this race to come down to who is the lesser of two evils because that's the only way he wins," says Jim Margolis, Brown's media consultant. "He has to get out his political machete and hack us because people don't like him."

Before Brown even gets her chance at Wilson, she must get by the June 7 Democratic primary and two opponents from her own party, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and State Sen. Tom Hayden, the former anti-war activist once married to Jane Fonda who made the surprise announcement that he would enter the race and focus on the issue of campaign reform. Leading in the polls -- though the margin has closed in the last few months -- and with a huge fund-raising advantage, Brown is everyone's favorite target. Last week Garamendi and Wilson both ridiculed Brown's call for a "no negative campaign" pledge to be enforced by a special commission. And some disgruntled liberals complain she has not yet "defined" herself, and got talked into running for governor before she was really ready.

From a distance her life does have a kind of "Dynasty" feel to it, with Brown following a preordained path. "I look at it and say, 'Yes, it was destiny at work,' " says one of Brown's closest friends, Meredith Brokaw, wife of the NBC news anchor and a toy store owner in New York.

And yet the destiny is apparent only in hindsight, after she had cleared a pathful of obstacles that make Brown as much the product of the choices many women her age had to make as "the genetic defect" that she likes to say made her enter politics.

In the Blood

Brown's father, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, remains a beloved figure here. A smiling, back-slapping Irish pol, Brown had two terms as governor, from 1958 to 1966, that coincided with the prime of California, before the Beach Boys gave way to Altamont, and New Deal liberalism was rejected in favor of Ronald Reagan conservatism.

As the youngest of Pat and Bernice Brown's four children, Kathleen could not escape politics, and remembers looking forward to going to breakfast with her father, only to discover that breakfast meant a live radio show. She was uncomfortable with the attention and had the governor's driver drop her off a few blocks from her elementary school in Sacramento. When Richard Nixon announced he would run against her father in 1962, her parents put her in a boarding school run by nuns.

But at 48 Brown wears the battle ribbons of many women who grew up more conventionally in the pre-feminist '60s and changed her life as expectations and circumstances changed around her. Her experiences -- dropping out of college to get married and have a baby, a painful divorce and late entry into the job market, moving for her second husband's career -- are those of a person who had to devise her own life plan as she went along.

"I was on the cusp of a generation of women who began to go into professional careers," but as a bystander, Brown recalls. "I didn't think I could ever catch up, no matter how hard I ran."

Married to lawyer George Rice and by then the mother of three children, Kathleen Brown Rice decided to run for the Los Angeles School Board in 1975 after getting involved in a fight over the creation of a magnet school. Characteristically, she says her decision was not because of the issues, but because of the way parents and teachers were treated by the board members.

"I went ballistic," she recalls. "I just couldn't believe that elected officials could be so disrespectful and unresponsive. I was not raised that way. I mean my father was so responsive to people. It didn't matter who they were."

Brown could not have known the turmoil that was ahead. A court-ordered busing plan deeply divided the city with the board as the focal point. Brown played the role of conciliator. "What she tried very hard to do was to get the warring factions to find some kind of balance," says Roberta Weintraub, a leader of the anti-busing forces. "But there was no balance to be had at that time."

Simultaneously, Brown had to face a personal crisis when her husband left her. "It hit her hard," says Weintraub. But not long after the separation, an unlikely suitor entered her life. Van Gordon Sauter, a former newspaper reporter and manager of the local CBS television station, saw Brown on the news and asked a friend to arrange a date. At the end of the evening he told her he was going to marry her.

Sauter was a conservative -- he describes himself now as more of a libertarian -- who in delivering his station's editorials liked to make fun of what he calls the liberal "bed-wetters" on the board. He was funny, charismatic and vain. Not long after they sent out the wedding invitations, Sauter was offered a job in New York as president of CBS Sports.

"So I had to decide," says Brown. "Was I going to get married, was I not going to get married? Was I going to be a bi-coastal mother or a bi-coastal board member? What was I going to be?" In the end, she opted to move and be a mother and a wife. Brown says it came down to "gut, instinctual, fundamental values that I hold," but she had no illusions about what it meant. "I figured that was the end of a political career for me."

To Brown, the time in New York was a chance to start over again, to be with her son and two daughters at a critical age and to put some difficult years behind her. She was now simply the wife of a network executive and a law student. Though she still made sure that Sauter's driver dropped her off a few safe blocks from Fordham Law School.

In recalling that period, Brown still speaks with some wonder about her own professional awakening. She remembers going to her summer job at the Manhattan district attorney's office wearing a Walkman and running shoes and taking the subway to the Battery. "I looked uptown at that skyline and said, 'I cannot believe this, a Magellen Avenue kid' -- that's where I grew up -- by this time I'm 37 years old and hey, 'I work in New York City and I'm going to be a lawyer.' And it was pretty special."

She went to work as a bond lawyer for the New York office of O'Melveny & Myers, the blue-chip Los Angeles law firm that counted Warren Christopher as one of its partners. When Sauter was fired from CBS, after the network changed hands and bloody corporate infighting ensued, the family moved back to California. And Kathleen decided to pick up politics where she had left off.

What About Jerry?

On the front steps of a San Francisco police station, the Brown family has gathered again -- Kathleen's stepson, children, grandchildren, husband and brother, but not her father, who at age 88 is in deteriorating health. Kathleen's mother, Bernice, dignified and gracious, introduces her daughter by first recalling her own father, a policeman who served at the station for 41 years. "He didn't just talk tough about crime," says Bernice Brown, "he spent an entire career trying to prevent it. These same qualities I'm happy to say were passed on in abundance."

It is the second stop of a two-day tour of the state that will take her in and out of California's major media markets before returning to San Francisco. Brown will give the same speech dozens of times, emphasizing the issues of jobs, crime and education. But to the delight of the Wilson campaign, the picture that accompanied most newspaper accounts of her announcement was of Kathleen getting a brotherly smooch on the cheek. Jerry had been sitting unnoticed in the audience until a reporter asked why Kathleen was running away from him.

"Are you kidding? He's here," she responded, and the former governor and thorn in the side of the political establishment bounded to the microphone to kiss his sister and wish her luck.

Ironically, Hayden's entrance into the race means that it is the former anti-war activist, not Kathleen, who is running on the issue of campaign reform that Jerry Brown made the basis of his 1992 presidential campaign and that he repeats every chance he gets in his new role as talk show host. It was to differentiate herself from her brother that Brown came up with a slogan for her race for treasurer -- "A different shade of Brown." Even now campaign aides seem to regard Jerry as a kind of deranged aunt in the attic who could escape at any minute.

But he does have passion, and that is something that Brown herself has trouble conveying. The catch phrase of her announcement speech -- "enough is enough" -- came out alternately singsong and flat as she delivered it dozens of times around the state. The issue speeches she gave last fall and winter got mixed reviews. They were detailed, solidly centrist, but short on fire in the view of some supporters.

"I don't think she's in those speeches," says John Vasconcellos, a state assemblyman who once worked for Brown's father. "I just wish she would express who she is because there's so much there.

Schnur, Wilson's cheerful attack dog, argues that the more voters learn about Brown, the more they will end up supporting Wilson -- just the way they did in 1990 when Wilson defeated Dianne Feinstein.

"What they're finding out is that they disagree with her on any number of significant issues," Schnur said. "They don't agree on the issue of the death penalty. They don't agree with her on the issue of illegal immigration."

But more than issues, insists Schnur, is the question of character. "They might decide over the course of the election that they're very fond of Kathleen Brown, that they'd love to have her as a neighbor or over for dinner. But they're not going to trust her to run their state."

Sauter, now a consultant to Fox News who says he will play no role in the campaign, warns against underestimating his wife. "This is a woman who's more than capable of waging a fight," he says. "If they want to duke it out there's a mistake of considerable consequence in presuming that she's too nice to poke you in the eye."

Brown herself prefers to talk about her record as treasurer managing the state's $24 billion investment portfolio and jokes that when she's governor she'll invite Schnur to dinner. The criticism may be sexist, she says, "but you know what? It doesn't bother me. Call me a girl, call me a gal. Call me governor."