Sunday, March 07, 2010

"Perry has held elected office in Texas for 35 years and somehow succeeds, year after year, in positioning himself as an outsider."

Perry is vulnerable, but White has work to do


Jan Jarboe Russell
San Antonio Express-News
Copyroght 2010

Given Gov. Rick Perry's skillful evisceration of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary last week — and the anti-Obama sentiment in Texas — conventional wisdom suggests that the November governor's race is Perry's to lose.

Former Houston Mayor Bill White's chance to oust Perry depends on several factors: Can he persuade Republican moderates who are angry with Perry for vilifying Hutchison to cross over?

Can White make the case that Perry, a 10-year incumbent, needs to be replaced and that White, a moderate Democrat, is the one to replace him? Can White raise enough money to compete against Perry?

And, finally, a single statistic: 39 percent.

A 39 percent plurality is how Perry won in 2006 against Democrat Chris Bell, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who was a strong independent, and Kinky Friedman, an effective spoiler.

The fact that 50 percent of Texans did not support Perry's harsh, hard-right agenda four years ago is good news for White. Perry's recent rhetoric about secession and his bragging that Texas is “recession-proof” — at a time when 1 million Texans are out of work — make him a hero to the GOP's right wing. But those aspects also make him vulnerable in a general election.

The matchup between Perry and White will not just be a choice between Gov. Good Hair, as the columnist Molly Ivins used to say about Perry, and Gov. No Hair. It also will be a battle between Perry's pressing of rural Texas values (states' rights, guns, God, the pose of aggressive unsophistication) and White's urban Texas values (brash big-city brains, pragmatism, a Texas rich in education and culture, as well as a mythic past).

Demographically, the advantage should be White's. The last time a census showed Texas as a predominantly rural state was in 1940. But nostalgia and mist-shrouded caricature hold powerful sway. White will have to find his own version of the tired but effective “Don't Mess with Texas” refrain.

For starters, he can decry the state's debt, which has doubled under Perry's watch; toll the bell over the governor's land grab for the Trans-Texas Corridor fiasco; and criticize him for refusing $555 million in federal stimulus money in unemployment benefits.

In his victory speech last week, White struck a small blow for Texas values when he said each generation of Texans wants a better quality of life for the next. In today's Texas, with growing high school dropout rates, a stagnant economy and rising taxes, that's unlikely.

Opportunity is an urban Texas value; separatism is a rural one.

But White will have to do much better than that to win. Perry will come after White with all he's got and paint him as an Obama Democrat. To win, White will have to convince the great middle in Texas — moderates who don't like the left or the right — that he is a Democrat they can trust. It won't be easy.

Then again, stranger things have happened. Perry has held elected office in Texas for 35 years and somehow succeeds, year after year, in positioning himself as an outsider.

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