"It's not a given that Perry will be re-elected. He's alienated a lot of Republicans."
Jan. 8, 2006,
By R.G. RATCLIFFE, Austin Bureau
THE Texas governor's race has turned into a potentially wild, winner-take-all battle from which the victor is likely to emerge with less than half the vote.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn dramatically changed the dynamics of the contest last week when she dropped her Republican primary challenge to Gov. Rick Perry to run as an independent.
She joined satirist Kinky Friedman in the quest for the independents, the disgusted and the disinterested voters of Texas. To get on the ballot, both will have to gather valid signatures from 45,450 registered voters during a 60-day window this spring, a feat most political experts expect them to achieve.
If they make it, the November general election will consist of Perry, Strayhorn, Friedman, the Democratic nominee and a Libertarian nominee.
"If you're a political junkie, you're in heaven right now," said Dean Barkley, the campaign manager for Friedman. "Everyone will be watching this race. I guarantee you this will be the race in the country to watch."
Normally, about 36 percent of the state's registered voters turn out in a governor's contest. But this one could push turnout to the levels of 1990, when half the state's voters cast ballots in an election that put Democrat Ann Richards in the Governor's Mansion in an upset over Republican Clayton Williams.
All told, 15 candidates filed for governor this year with one of the parties or as an independent.
Of that group, political experts think there will be four viable candidates: Perry, Strayhorn, Friedman and the Democratic nominee — a designation currently sought by two front-running candidates, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Bob Gammage.
That the winner is likely to have less than half the vote will not be unusual. Richards in 1990 and Democrat Dolph Briscoe in 1972 won the governor's race with less than a majority. Strayhorn won the comptroller's office in 1998 with 49.5 percent of the vote.
What would be unusual would be for an independent or third-party candidate to win.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party ran the strongest national third-party campaign in U.S. history in 1912, taking 27 percent of the national vote in his losing bid.
Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot contributed to the 1992 defeat of President George H.W. Bush by taking 19 percent of the vote.
Perot was the strongest independent candidate in modern Texas history, taking 22 percent of the state vote. But Bush still carried Texas by winning 40.5 percent of the popular vote. Democrat Bill Clinton received 37 percent.
Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former professional wrestler and actor, surprised the nation by winning the Minnesota governor's race in 1998. But the last independent to win the Texas governor's office was Sam Houston in 1859.
To handicap the race, the Houston Chronicle asked for input from the campaigns as well as several knowledgeable political observers.
Mike Baselice: Pollster for Perry
Baselice said he thinks Strayhorn's decision to run as an independent increases Perry's chances of re-election.
"I don't know how this works. It's a Republican-leaning state," Baselice said. "There's only so many disenchanted party loyalists who are willing to take a stab at an independent candidacy."
Baselice said Texas has a base Republican vote of 50 percent and a base Democratic vote of 35 percent. He said if each party loses 5 percent of its vote and it is added to the independent, the swing vote just reaches 25 percent.
" If you gave it all to Strayhorn and none to Kinky, she's still woefully short," Baselice said.
He predicted Friedman's campaign will be meaningless by Election Day because he will not have the money to mount a statewide television-advertising campaign.
"It cost $1.6 million to run a week of TV properly in Texas," Baselice said.
Tom Pauken: Former Texas GOP chairman
Pauken said there is enough dissatisfaction with Republican voters about Perry's administration and inability to pass a public school finance plan than either Strayhorn or the Democratic nominee can defeat Perry in a multicandidate race.
"It's not a given that Perry will be re-elected," Pauken said. "He's alienated a lot of Republicans."
Pauken said gathering the signatures to get on the ballot may be a problem for Strayhorn.
"She doesn't have a strong organization, and Friedman has been preparing for the past year for what you have to do to run as an independent," Pauken said.
"Assuming she gets on the ballot, she can be a tough candidate in the fall. She hurts Perry, and she hurts him quite badly."
Pauken said Strayhorn's candidacy will be a big boost for the Democratic nominee because it increases the impact of the Democratic base vote in a divided turnout.
But he said Strayhorn has a shot at winning because voters have become disenchanted with both Republicans and Democrats.
"They're angrier at the Republicans at the moment than the Democrats, but there's a little bit of pox on both your houses," Pauken said.
He said Strayhorn's independent candidacy will take the wind out of Friedman's sails.
" I see him more as a protest vote or a joke. Now, with Strayhorn in the race, his hopes will fade dramatically," Pauken said.
Brad McClellan: Stayhorn's son and campaign manager
McClellan said Strayhorn knows it will be tough to win as an independent.
"It has been 147 years since this has been done, and Sam Houston probably needed fewer votes to win than we need signatures (to get on the ballot)," McClellan said.
Houston won his 1859 race with 33,375 votes, according to Richard Rice, historical interpreter at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville. That's 12,075 fewer voter signatures than Strayhorn and Friedman each need to get on the ballot.
McClellan said no one should discount the fact Strayhorn will be the only woman in a field of male candidates running for governor.
"It's just another perspective. It's that tough grandma. There are more females that vote in the general election than, say, in the Republican primary," he said.
McClellan said his mother will take a large portion of the Democratic and independent vote as well as the Republican base because voters are "fed up" with both parties, particularly on issues such as educating children.
"We're the one that's going to win this race because we cut into that conservative base. And there's a big base out there. There are people out there who say they're tired of the labels, and they want to see stuff get done," he said.
Jason Stanford: Bell's chief consultant
Stanford said the complexity of building a voting bloc from Republicans, Democrats and independents will make it difficult for Strayhorn to win.
"There are too many cross- purposes. Before, it was simple: She needed to create a general election in a primary," Stanford said. "Chris Bell's challenge is to get Democrats to vote for the Democratic nominee."
Stanford said Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez got 40 percent of the vote against Perry in 2002. He said that vote will be enough for the Democratic nominee to win in a multicandidate race against Perry.
"Everyone in this race is making a persuasive case to fire Rick Perry," he said.
Stanford said the cost of a Democratic campaign will be less because it can target Democratic voters. He said the multicandidate race also will make it difficult for Perry to attack any one opponent with negative television commercials.
"If he puts up $5 million on TV against Chris Bell, none of those votes are going to go to him. They're going to go to Carole Strayhorn or Kinky Friedman. His return on that dollar is marginal at best," Stanford said.
The other candidates can go after Perry, though.
"This isn't a circular firing squad. We're all pointed at Rick Perry, and he's got to spend the entire time on defense."
Dean Rindy: Gammage adviser
Rindy said he thinks the Democratic nominee will benefit from Perry and Strayhorn viciously attacking each other in the first half of the year as Perry tries to "crush" Strayhorn's ability to build momentum.
"While the two dinosaurs thrash about in the jungle, we can remain relatively unscathed for the midpart of the campaign year," Rindy said in a memo to Gammage supporters. "We will hammer home our message to hold our base, while looking far cleaner than our two Republican rivals."
Rindy said Strayhorn's independent campaign will finish off Friedman.
"She simply sucks the air out of Kinky's message, hogs the media spotlight, steps on his story line and makes it very difficult for him to attract significant numbers of Perot-type conservatives," he said.
Rindy said the Texas governor's race is developing into a contest like the 1992 presidential contest when Bush barely carried Texas despite Perot's insurgent campaign.
"Bush Sr. barely scraped by in that election, and Rick Perry is not George Bush," Rindy said. "Her image as an independent is much weaker than Perot's, and it will be extremely easy to discredit her with Democratic voters."
Dean Barkley: Friedman's campaign manager
Barkley ran Ventura's surprise independent victory in Minnesota. He said Friedman can replicate it in Texas.
"It's real simple. What an independent candidate has to do to win is they have to motivate the traditional nonvoting public, or disgruntled voters who have stopped voting, to return to the polls to vote," Barkley said.
"If Carole could pull off the illusion that she is really an independent, it could make it more difficult for us. The jury is out on whether Carole has the qualities to motivate nonvoting people to vote. I know Kinky can."
Barkley said he thinks that in a three-way race the winner will need 40 percent of the vote. In a four-way race, he said the victor could take it with as little as 30 percent.
"There's a lot of dissatisfaction with Perry among conservatives," Barkley said. "Now that will be a battle between Carole and Kinky as to which one they are going to go for."
He said Friedman also will be able to appeal to Democrats on environmental issues and social libertarian stands such as supporting gay marriage.
Barkley said Texas voters also will see a difference in the contest in March and April during the 60 days when Strayhorn and Friedman are gathering signatures to get on the ballot. Both will need to collect about twice as many signatures as they need to guarantee they have enough valid signatures.
Valid signatures come from registered voters who cast no ballots in either party's primary or runoffs. They also cannot sign both the Strayhorn and Friedman petition.
"A lot of people are going to be bugged to put their signature on a petition. Make sure it's the Kinky petition you sign, not the Strayhorn," Barkley said.
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© 2006 The Houston Chronicle