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Texas Governor's Race a Real Ripsnorter : Politics: With just a few weeks to go, the most popular Statehouse occupant in recent state history is in the race of her life. 'I feel rode hard and put up wet,' she says.


SULPHUR SPRINGS, Tex. — It's been a long day on the campaign trail for Gov. Ann Richards. El Paso in the morning, clear down to Matamoros, Mexico, in the afternoon and all the way up to this little East Texas cow town for dinner.

After traveling nearly 1,200 miles, she's hungry and tired and wants nothing more than a solid meal and a soft bed.

"I feel rode hard and put up wet," she said to a group of Democrats standing in line for the 10th annual Hopkins County Bean Dinner sponsored by the local Democratic women.

With less than a month before Election Day, the most popular governor in recent Texas history is down to the home stretch in the race of her life. She's neck and neck with George W. Bush, the 48-year-old son of the former President.

The pressure is on. But despite it all, Richards hasn't lost her down-home charm and trademark humor that not only brought her fans across Texas, but landed her on the David Letterman Show, put her on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and plucked campaign contributions from Hollywood movie stars.

Looking dismally into a Styrofoam bowl of watered-down beans with two slices of sausage floating on top, Richards chides Rep. Jim Chapman for the meager fare.

"Look at this. All I get is two bitty pieces of wienie! Here I am a working woman, been at it all day," she deadpans in her true Texas twang.

"I tell you what," she tells the crowd, rolling back on her high heels, her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her white silk suit, "he must have raised a lot of money tonight. He sure didn't spend any on supper."

The crowd of old cowboys and farmers and veterans and widows roars, leaning back in their folding chairs and slapping their hands on the long, paper-covered tables.

So why is this widely adored powerhouse of a woman--with little to apologize for after four years in office--in the midst of what she calls a "knock down, hide the kids, the fur's going to fly" fight for the governor's mansion?

After all, the economy has improved dramatically during her term, crime has dropped 25% across the board, and she hasn't raised taxes.

Several political analysts say it comes down to factors out of her control.

Democrats are fast losing popularity in Texas and across the country--and Richards' friendship with President Clinton has only hurt her. Richards comes from a long line of Democrats--and was married to a civil rights lawyer. Her tough stance on crime, the death penalty and NAFTA hardly makes her a classic liberal, but in Texas she's still left of center.

Republicans, meanwhile, are gaining strength in Texas as throngs of conservative out-of-staters move to the suburbs of the Lone Star State. Over the last few years, the electorate has dwindled to the point that 53% are native Texans.

For the last two decades, Texas has been generally considered one-third committed Democrats, one-third Republicans and one-third swing voters. But over the last four years, the electorate has been sliding to the GOP.

Perhaps the most troubling to Richards is the very name of her opponent. Texans voted for President George Bush over Clinton in 1992 and have fond feelings for the Bush family. And those feelings are wafting over to the former President's eldest son, reared in Midland, Tex., and now managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

At one of Bush's recent speeches to a group of educators in Dallas, one teacher seeking an autograph gushed, "Your mamma must be so proud of you."

George Christian, a political analyst and former press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson, gives Richards credit for keeping the race tight.

"The truth is, she ought to be the underdog if you consider all these factors," he said. "If she were anybody but Ann Richards in this environment, I think she would have gone under before now."

Ann Richards has what few politicians have and all want--star appeal.

When she enters a room, the crowd hushes and pushes toward her. She's mobbed with autograph seekers, picture-takers and parents shoving babies into her arms.

At a recent fund-raiser in Dallas, comedian Robin Williams took the stage, calling Richards "Mrs. Onfire."

"She speaks and the whole world goes, 'I like her,' " said Williams, who offered his performance free upon the request of his wife, Marcia, who is a fan of the governor.

Richards, on stage in her clingy black knit pants and bolero jacket, smoothed her hands over her hips and quipped, "I've got everything pulled in that I can pull in. I was afraid he'd think I was Mrs. Doubtfire."

The audience contorts in bellyaches as their heroine gently pats the back of her cotton candy hair--swirled up so white and so high the light shines through it.

Richards is a Texan through and through. Born 61 years ago in a small town outside of Waco, her daddy taught her how to talk straight and shoot better. Over the years, she learned to survive alcoholism and divorce.

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