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The Cowboy and the Good Ol' Girl : In an Era of Bland Politics, Claytie Williams and Ann Richards Are Brawling, Down and Dirty, in Texas

October 21, 1990|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | J. Michael Kennedy is the Houston bureau chief of The Times

CLAYTON WILLIAMS JR., in a pricey gray business suit and straw summer cowboy hat, strides toward the several hundred people gathered at the Circle R Ranch in Flower Mound, a bedroom community north of Dallas. He flashes his face-splitting grin and begins his meeting-and-greeting, running-for-governor routine, part of which is kissing just about every woman who comes within arm's reach and having his picture taken with the ladies, always with his thumb pointed toward the heavens.

His voice sounds like heavy-duty sandpaper against rough wood as he makes his way to the head table: "How're you? Glad to see you. Thanks for coming by."

Once seated, he flips his tie back, licks his fingers and digs into a plate of barbecue with a plastic knife and fork. His hat rests on the table in front of him, and a growing bald spot at the back of his head is revealed. True, Williams is the star attraction, but there are other matters to be discussed before he takes the speaker's stand, namely, the upcoming Western Week celebration in neighboring Lewisville.

A young blond woman holds forth for an eternity, introducing the Western Week grand marshal and other dignitaries and gushes about the booths, dance groups, gunfight shows and chalk art being prepared for the big event. When Williams finally gets behind the microphone, he begins the speech that marks his every stop. "Hold on to your seats," he tells the crowd. "I'm liable to be your governor."

Then, predictably, comes the yarn of Williams' early years in Fort Stockton, the largest dot on the map between San Antonio and El Paso, of how he played halfback for the Fort Stockton Panthers. Williams pauses at this point because he knows he's going to get them with this one.

"They were small and, boy, they were slow," he says of his team, anticipating with relish the punch line that has become a permanent fixture in his repertoire. "We had a 5-5 record--" Long pause. "We lost five on the road and we lost five at home."

The crowd laughs appreciatively, as it always does. He ticks off his spiel about how--without any new taxes--he plans to mount a war on drugs like no one has ever seen: beefing up law enforcement, doubling prison space and sending first offenders to boot camp for rigorous, military-style training. All of which is the setup for the line that put Clayton Williams here, delivered in his most sincere voice: "Gov. Clayton Williams is going to introduce them to the joys of bustin' rocks!"

The crowd really goes for that one, applauding and whooping it up. Those words, first spoken in one of his television commercials, are the ones that propelled Williams out of political obscurity, turning him from just one of many millionaires in the dusty West Texas city of Midland to the odds-on favorite in the Texas gubernatorial race. He has gotten this far solely on the strength of images, of television commercials and crowd-pleasing speeches. For the 59-year-old Republican, the governorship is the ultimate trophy to hunt down and add to his collection; the heads of the many big-game animals he has shot crowd his office walls. He is going after it with all of his trademark zest. Now all he has to do is beat Ann Richards.

IT'S A TAKE-YOUR-COAT-OFF DAY, A SCORCHER, THE WAY IT always is just before summer turns to autumn in Fort Worth. Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards is standing in front of a gate at the General Dynamics plant, where, inside the cavernous hangars, an army of workers builds F-16 fighter jets.

It seems that one of the prerequisites for the job of governor is having to stand on the edge of the broiling parking lot at the 3:30 p.m. shift change. Richards, in a pink-and-white checked skirt, her swirled white hair absolutely immovable as always, braces herself as she is almost trampled underfoot by the wave of workers who crash through the gate, racing for their cars.

"Good to see you," says Richards, handing a campaign brochure to a plant worker. "I'm Ann Richards, and I'm running for governor." The woman accepts the brochure with no hint of recognition. But there are others who recognize Richards at once, like the man wearing "Another Man for Ann" T-shirt and Brenda Brimer, a procurement analyst at the plant and a member of the Texas Democratic Party Executive Committee. The two women hug; they have known each other for years. Brimer once gave Richards a coffee cup inscribed: "Behind every successful woman is a surprised man."

From early morning, Richards, 57, has been pressing the flesh, first in San Antonio, then in Fort Worth. Dallas is on the evening calendar. She has been at full tilt since late August, when most politicians were working the fund-raising circuit and resting up for the grueling campaign stretch. She has good reason. The most-recent polls showed her to be more than 10 percentage points behind Williams.

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