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Challengers Shaking Up the Race for Texas Governor

By Mark Davis

With less than three months to go, here are the one-line campaign strategies in the four-horse race that will yield the most interesting gubernatorial campaign ever.

Gov. Rick Perry: Play it safe.

Independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn: Pick your battles.

Independent Kinky Friedman: Be yourself.

Democrat Chris Bell: Pray for recognition.

Now let's see how those strategies are likely to play out.

Following George Bush into the Governor's Mansion has been a blessing and a curse for Mr. Perry. Mr. Bush's departure to run for president guaranteed him the job, and an election less than two years later found voters sufficiently impressed to hand him a full four-year term.

Now that he seeks another, the passage of time is a friend and a foe. He probably will never see the approval levels of his predecessor, and some say he suffers from the comparison, lacking Mr. Bush's effortless congeniality and comfort in his own skin.

But six years of actually doing the job have reaped sizable rewards. His fiscal and social conservatism clearly resonates with a majority of Texas voters. He will remind us in the coming months about his tort reform victory and the Texas economic beacon that continues to draw people and businesses.

And if there's anything a politician likes as much as good news, it's averting bad news. While there will be grumbling from some quarters about the school finance plan he shepherded through the Legislature, the fact is that the issue has largely gone away. The story of its success or failure will last deep into the next gubernatorial term.

Barring some unforeseen disaster, it is a term that Mr. Perry will occupy. There is simply no reason for him to lose. As such, he will play low-profile, mistake-free ball, taking the aw-shucks road of directing people to his record and staying above the fray that awaits him from three challengers.

Not one of those challengers will hit 30 percent, but if each snags 17, it would deny Mr. Perry a majority and make some believe that a single opponent could have beaten him.

Not true. No single politician could bring together the narrow but vocal bases of support from the Strayhorn, Friedman and Bell camps.

Mr. Bell, the actual Democrat, bless his heart, may finish fourth. Not because he isn't a decent guy or a worthy candidate; he simply has no hope of garnering the attention that will be afforded the two independents who are making names - some would say spectacles - of themselves.

Wheels-off behavior has been the trademark of Ms. Strayhorn and Mr. Friedman. For him, it has helped; for her, it has hurt.

It has hurt the Strayhorn effort because her old reputation as a tough, straight-talkin' guardian of the people's money has been replaced by a less-marketable veneer of a crotchety dowager who lives to put a stick in Mr. Perry's eye at every turn. Her most notable move in the campaign so far has been the futile and silly attempt to get her campaign nickname, "Grandma," onto the ballot.

The one nickname you will see on the ballot is the one that gives this race its quirkiest component.

Kinky.

Can Mr. Friedman win? No. But what once looked like a self-indulgent joke has matured into an offbeat political adventure that is attracting more than just voters looking to cast throwaway votes based on humor and cynicism.

Kinky draws from every spot on the political spectrum. His biodiesel fetish warms Gore-style enviro-hippies; one of his T-shirts ("May the God of Your Choice Bless You") winkingly resonates with both the churchgoer and the libertarian; and what red-meat conservative couldn't embrace his immigration plan? Give five Mexican generals a million-dollar trust fund and a portion of the border to monitor. Deduct $5,000 for each illegal crossing. Problem solved.

OK, probably not. But like his other ideas, some offered for laughs and some not, there is a carefree confidence that says, "Take me or leave me," something you will never get from today's nearly universally uptight, index-card-reading candidates.

So, good for him. And good for us. We can vote for the incumbent - or another Republican running as an independent, or a Democrat, or Kinky, whatever he is.

And they say voters never get a real choice.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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