For his part, Mr. Brown said Washington was “basically going to war against the state of California.”
Polls suggest that the two leading contenders to succeed Mr. Brown are Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and a former mayor of San Francisco, and Antonio R. Villaraigosa, the former two-term mayor of Los Angeles and Assembly speaker, both Democrats. The two are known as effective public speakers with extensive political experience that could prove important in navigating the fight against Washington.
Of the two, Mr. Newsom has assumed the more aggressive stance in taking on the Trump administration, drawing strong support from liberal Democrats in the process. He has also called for the impeachment of Mr. Trump. A centerpiece of his campaign is a pledge to adopt a government-run, single-payer health care system, a direct challenge to the free-market vision embraced by Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans.
“This is more than a political campaign,” Mr. Newsom told cheering delegates at the state Democratic convention here this year. “It’s about Democrats acting like Democrats in a battle for America’s soul against a president without one.”
“Some of the defeatist Democrats are saying we just want to defend against the status quo,” he told another audience that day. “How can you just defend against the status quo? We need to do more than just push back against their agenda to wreak more havoc.”
Mr. Villaraigosa has struck a relatively more restrained note, saying it was too early to talk about impeachment and dismissing Mr. Newsom’s promise to have California go it alone with its own health care system as a “pie-in-the-sky” promise he was making to ride anti-Trump sentiment. In tone, Mr. Villaraigosa is closer to Mr. Brown in positioning himself against the president.
“Gavin likes to talk about the resistance — I don’t use that word,” Mr. Villaraigosa said over green tea during a break from campaigning in downtown Los Angeles. “I tell people the best way to resist is not to text and tweet, scream and yell at Donald Trump. The best way to resist is for us to chart a different path here in this state.”
“We are going to push back,” he said. “But most of our attention, most of our efforts need to be focused on improving the human condition here.”
Robert Shrum, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said the divisions on health care and impeachment reflected discussions Democrats were having nationally as they debated the best way to defeat Mr. Trump. Mr. Villaraigosa’s stance reflects the calculation that while California is overwhelmingly Democratic in its voting habits, many voters are independent by registration, and thus might be less receptive to an overly confrontational position against Mr. Trump.
“Newsom is endorsing all of those things on the Democratic wish list,” Mr. Shrum said. “Villaraigosa is saying, ‘I like those things but we actually can’t do them.’
“One position speaks to the anger in the base,” he said. “The other speaks to what I think Democratic leadership in Congress prefers.”
Under California’s election system, 27 candidates will appear on a primary ballot on June 5, regardless of party. A runoff in November will be held between the top two finishers.
While polls suggest the November contest will be between Mr. Villaraigosa and Mr. Newsom, the dynamics of a multicandidate field can make it difficult to predict who might finish in the top. John Chiang, a Democrat and the state treasurer, and John H. Cox, a Republican businessman, also appear to be in position to capture a spot on the November ballot, according to some polls.
And Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and the former state superintendent of public education, has drawn vocal support from the left with her own call for single-payer health care and the impeachment of Mr. Trump.
If the November election ends up being between Mr. Villaraigosa and Mr. Newsom, it will be a classic north versus south contest. Candidates from Northern California tend to win those, because of heavier turnout in the Bay Area; Mr. Newsom enjoys a big advantage in fund-raising and leads in most statewide polls.
But Mr. Villaraigosa would be the first Latino governor elected in modern times. He is running when the ever-growing Latino community accounts for nearly 40 percent of the population and when California is battling with the administration over restrictive immigration policies.
Mr. Newsom, 50, has made a single-payer government-run health care system for California a central plank of his campaign as he has sought to ride the anti-Trump sentiment that is surging in Democratic circles here, including within the powerful nurses’ union. “It is a litmus test for our endorsement,” said Bonnie Castillo, the executive director of the California Nurses Association. “Gavin passes it with flying colors.”
Mr. Trump’s efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, and his pledge to continue doing so, means that health care will likely be another challenge for the next governor, whether or not California implements single-payer.
“If our health care system is thrown into absolute chaos because of what happens in Washington, the voters in California are going to expect the Democrats who control California to deal with it,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic consultant who advises the nurses union.
If Mr. Newsom won and made good on that campaign promise, he would open a up a whole new area of contention with Mr. Trump. Single-payer health care is likely to require waivers from the Trump administration in order to apply Medicare payments to financing a potentially $400 billion program, along with substantial tax increases.
Mr. Villaraigosa, 65, said he supported the concept of single-payer health care, but dismissed Mr. Newsom’s promise as unrealistic.
“He’s arguing with bold leadership we’re going to do it — even though he knows you need Trump’s waivers to do it,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “They are not going to give us the waivers for that. Think about this: You ready to double your taxes? Nobody is going to do that. Everyone is for it until they realize — whoa. The cost. ”
Mr. Chiang said he, too, supported a state health care system. “I just think Gavin Newsom should be forthcoming on how they are going to pay for it,” he said.
Mr. Newsom dismissed his critics as “defeatist Democrats.”
“It’s a jaw-dropping thing: to say you support something but it can’t be done,” Mr. Newsom said in an interview a few blocks from his office in Sacramento. “Who the hell is interested in ‘it can’t be done.’ We wouldn’t have marriage equality if I had listened to ‘it can’t be done.’”
Asked what his plan was to pay for it, Mr. Newsom responded: “The one that works is the one I support. I’m not an ideologue.”
Still, the biggest question may well be whether anyone will be able to replace Mr. Brown as California’s counterpoint to Mr. Trump — and whether the state’s stature as a national leader in this fight will diminish when Mr. Brown retires to his ranch next January.
“California is usually the leading edge,” said Ms. Eastin, one of the Democrats seeking to replace him. “It’s the sixth largest economy in the world. I think California will get attention.”
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