Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Strayhorn starts her engine.

Strayhorn's just getting started

Hopeful trailing but says Perry vulnerable

December 19, 2005

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

DUNCANVILLE – In the language of prizefighting, Carole Keeton Strayhorn is sure Gov. Rick Perry has a glass jaw.

"Perry's support is this deep," she said, holding her finger and thumb an inch apart. "Once we get to issues, he collapses."

Although she's trailing badly in the polls, in Republican endorsements and in campaign contributions, the state comptroller is confident she "can take this governor out" in the GOP primary by tapping voter dissatisfaction with Mr. Perry's leadership and his failure to lower property taxes and fix public schools.

If she can pull it off, the upset will be like nothing else in the state's recent political history. She's running an unorthodox campaign for a Republican, tapping trial lawyers as a major source of cash and taking on an incumbent popular among the party activists who dominate primaries.

And while she insists she is a Republican candidate for governor, she won't categorically knock down speculation that she could file to run as an independent. Plus, with less than three months until the March 7 primary, she has yet to air a single television commercial.
But the push is coming, Mrs. Strayhorn said last week.

On Jan. 2, the deadline to file as a candidate, "get ready to buckle your seat belt," she vowed as she made the rounds of fundraisers and political appearances.

Her strategy is to blast Mr. Perry relentlessly and, apparently, to try to draw more voters into the primary to counter the governor's strong support among the GOP base. Mr. Perry's campaign aides dismiss her efforts as desperate and predict that the appeal to Democrats and independents will backfire.

An array of support

While Mr. Perry has focused on his traditional GOP base, Mrs. Strayhorn has sought support from a disparate group of political backers – moderate Republicans, Democratic trial lawyers, educators who want a major infusion of state money into the public schools, opponents of Mr. Perry's toll-heavy, $184 billion Trans Texas Corridor highway plan and various voter groups unhappy with the governor's performance in office.

Thursday, she traveled to a Dallas fundraiser at the home of Republican Harlan Crow in a jet owned by Houston trial lawyer John Eddie Williams, a major backer of the Democratic Party.
"I sincerely appreciate it that I've got huge across-the-board, broad-based support from Republicans, Democrats and independents," she said. "And the beauty of that is that's what this state needs right now, someone who can pull everybody together."

Some campaign supporters, including trial lawyers, told The Dallas Morning News they are urging Mrs. Strayhorn to forgo the GOP primary. And her pollster recently surveyed Texas voters to gauge support should Mrs. Strayhorn run as an independent.

Political analysts say Mrs. Strayhorn is bucking a political headwind by challenging Mr. Perry in the Republican primary, which will be dominated by GOP loyalists not inclined to oust their party's incumbent and by religious conservatives the governor has actively courted. Mrs. Strayhorn, consistently among the state's top vote-getters in general elections, would find more receptive voters in November, analysts say.

"The foundation of her strategy stems from the dissatisfaction people have had with Rick Perry," said James Riddlesperger, a Texas Christian University political scientist.
The most recent Texas Poll shows Mr. Perry with a 2-1 lead over Mrs. Strayhorn in a GOP primary. But nearly as many voters have a negative impression of the governor as a positive impression, a weakness the Strayhorn camp hopes to exploit in a multimillion advertising campaign beginning in January.

Geared up

The outlines of that campaign were clear last week during political stops in the Dallas area.
"Rick Perry has promised tax reductions, and he broke that promise. He promised to fix school reform. He's broken that promise," Mrs. Strayhorn told business leaders at a Duncanville hotel. "Now he promises me, and I quote in his own words, 'a bloody, brutal campaign.'

"I say, bring it on," she said.

In her caffeinated, rat-a-tat speaking style, Mrs. Strayhorn blasted Mr. Perry for "signing into law $2.7 billion in new fees, taxpayer charges and out-of-pocket expenses" to balance the state budget. She denounced the governor's toll-road project as a land grab by "Governor Perry and his highway henchmen" to benefit a foreign contractor under secret terms. She said the state budget has grown 41 percent under his tenure, electric and insurance bills are on the rise, and children's health insurance is not properly funded.

In her rise from Austin mayor to the state's chief financial officer, Mrs. Strayhorn has campaigned with a distinct political persona – "one tough grandma." She often tells her audiences anecdotes about family and discusses public policy by its effect on children.
Her biggest applause last week came when she called for mandatory life sentences for violent child sexual predators – an issue she was unsuccessful in getting Mr. Perry to include on the agenda of recent special legislative sessions.

Robert Black, a Perry campaign spokesman, said Mrs. Strayhorn, "has been long on jaded criticism and very short on offering any kind of constructive solutions."

The Perry campaign is expected to spend at least $15 million in the primary, beginning with a high-dollar TV spot during the Rose Bowl, the college football championship game featuring the University of Texas. The Strayhorn camp will report in January that it has more than $10 million, which would allow a $1 million-a-week advertising campaign highlighting what the comptroller calls the governor's "misplaced priorities and failed leadership."

Lacking the formal field operation of the Perry side, the Strayhorn blueprint appears to hinge on a vigorous TV campaign to motivate at least 1.1 million Texans to vote, which would be a record for a GOP primary in a non-presidential year. The Strayhorn team believes many of the new voters would be hers.

Hurdles ahead

But she faces other obstacles, and the first – and easiest to remedy – was evident last week when a local official asked a question during a campaign stop in Duncanville.

"Mrs. Rylander," he began.

"Strayhorn," she gently corrected.

The last time she was on the ballot was as Carole Keeton Rylander in 2002. But her strategists believe they can remedy any voter confusion over her new married name with a $1 million, one-week burst of television to connect "one tough grandma" and the name Strayhorn.
The Perry camp is expected to counter with a blistering attack that challenges Mrs. Strayhorn's Republican credentials and accuses her of dispensing tax benefits as comptroller to big campaign contributors.

Todd Smith, a Republican strategist in Austin, said he's baffled why Mrs. Strayhorn didn't go on television early like candidate Clayton Williams, who began airing commercials seven months before the 1990 primary. Mrs. Strayhorn was a co-chairman of the Williams campaign.
"She got to watch firsthand the strategy of starting early and having the time necessary to create a clear and compelling contrast," Mr. Smith said. "Even if she's able to provide a compelling reason for voters to choose her over Rick Perry, I don't know if there's enough time to get them listen."

Mrs. Strayhorn said she is confident she can win and has a strong indicator to prove it.
A sixth grandchild is on the way, she said, and she has never lost a political campaign in a year when a grandchild was born.

E-mail wslater@dallasnews.com

Perry urges letters that attack foe

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry's campaign is helping orchestrate letters to the editor designed to appear as spontaneous criticism of Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

In an e-mail to Perry supporters, North Texas field representative Lathan Watts offers "talking points and even sample letters" to help supporters write to The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

According to the e-mail, the Perry campaign wants letter writers to accuse Mrs. Strayhorn of using her state comptroller's office for political purposes.

The Strayhorn campaign denounced the covert letter-writing assistance as unethical.
"They may have to resort to begging people to write letters to the editor, but that is a false and misleading tactic that we would never be involved in," said spokesman Mark Sanders.
But Robert Black, a Perry spokesman in Austin, defended the letter-writing effort.

"We will do whatever we can to help grass-roots Republicans express their outrage," Mr. Black said.

Wayne Slater

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