When Arnold Schwarzenegger first sought California’s governorship in 2003, many saw it as the role of a lifetime.

But these days, those seeking to succeed him get a far different perspective: Why on earth would you want the job?

With the state running perilously close to running out of money, and a byzantine system of perpetual budget fights and confusing ballot initiatives, even those in the entertainment industry’s hefty donor community exhibit a greater degree of skepticism as a new field of 2010 candidates pushes an agenda of reform.

Still, less-fatigued industry figures are starting to give money and line up behind their picks, setting the stage for a battle for dollars that may bear some resemblance to the just-ended presidential race, at least on the Democratic side.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last week attended a fund-raiser at the Santa Monica home of Craig and Lynn Jacobson, with co-hosts including Ari Emanuel and Rob Reiner. That followed a townhall-like appearance before agents and employees of ICM. And for months, Newsom has been drawing contributions from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Ron and Kelly Meyer and Skip Paul.

The state’s Attorney General, Jerry Brown, isn’t officially in the race but he’s widely expected to run, with a deep base of Hollywood support extending to the state’s disco days, when he served as governor from 1975 to 1983. Brown even coyly suggests a bid on his Jerry Brown 2010 website, where he lists “25 Random Things About Me,” including the coy line: “The first time I became governor, I followed an actor (Ronald Reagan).”

Brown has been raising money under the auspices of his attorney general re-election committee, with a lineup of donors that includes Don Henley, Ron Burkle, Irving Azoff, Wallis Annenberg and Jeff Berg.

There’s also the prospect of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa entering the race. There are doubts that he will — for myriad personal and political reasons — but if he does he undoubtedly leaves many in showbiz with conflicting loyalties.

Meanwhile, although it’s expected that Democrats will dominate this gubernatorial money primary, Republicans are drawing on the industry where they can . Although the GOP field includes former congressman Tom Campbell and insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, the Republican candidate with the strongest industry roots is Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay who also is a former board member of DreamWorks Animation. Her finance team includes MGM CEO Harry Sloan and former Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel, and she’s already held industry-showbiz fundraisers.

Who has the edge overall?

Brown is presumed to have the advantage, a known quantity with strong name recognition. But Brown may not maintain that edge. In a populist-tinged fund-raising e-mail last week, he noted his “unusual opportunity to see California State government and its political process up close for a long, long time.”

“If you asked me four or five months ago, I would say it is a slam-dunk for Jerry Brown,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst and senior scholar at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. “I don’t believe that anymore. When I talk to my graduate students, if they know anything at all about Jerry Brown, it is ‘Gov. Moonbeam.’ ”

Newsom has been positioning himself as the candidate for the younger generation, drawing elements from Barack Obama’s playbook, including his use of social networking and Twitter feeds. He’s even hired one of Obama’s consultants to raise money in Los Angeles and the entertainment community. Eric Paquette and Yolanda “Cookie” Parker, two L.A.-based members of Obama’s national finance committee, have been hosts of events for Newsom.

ICM prexy Chris Silbermann, who backed Obama, says he decided to go with Newsom because he was “very impressed by his knowledge of the issues and his creative approach to solving difficult issues.”

Nevertheless, while Newsom may be best known as the man who went out on a limb and performed same-sex weddings in his city, some donors have doubts about his electability in a state general election. The candidate himself goes to some length to describe himself as an economic centrist in a city of liberalism. Before the ICM crowd he agreed with one questioner’s concern and said the solution to the state’s fiscal mess “can’t simply be to raise top tax rates.” But he also suggests that the state has to keep an “open mind” about Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that put a cap on property taxes and has been the “third rail” of state politics.

Political consultant Andy Spahn says many donors will sit on the fence or contribute to multiple candidates, which is what happened during the run-up to the presidential election.

Among serious donors, a telling indication of strength will come June 30, when candidates file their first finance statements disclosing how much they have raised.

As always, everyone likes to get behind a winner — if you can call them that.

“I have already announced that I will not vote for anyone who runs,” Jeffe quips, “because I think you have to be insane to run for governor.”