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Symbolism Frames Race for Governor

Texas: In an extremely expensive fight over a traditionally weak office, the election will test whether the state is ready for a Latino leader.


HOUSTON — The men who drawled their way through their first debate could have stepped straight from the Texas imagination: a cotton farmer and an oil baron, men who talked plain and pious, jabbed indignant fingers and decried each other's trickery.

The two candidates vying to take over George W. Bush's old job could hardly be called political opposites. Incumbent Rick Perry, 52, was a rural Democrat from the old Southern tradition who reinvented himself as a Republican midway through his career. Tony Sanchez, 59, is a high-rolling Democrat and sometime Republican supporter who slips easily between Spanish and English. They are both moderate Bush-lovers who'd rather swallow fire than be tagged "liberal."

In a state legendary for political theater, this fall's gubernatorial campaign is the most expensive in Texas history--and one of the nastiest. It's a fight over a relatively weak governorship, and analysts say neither candidate, if elected, is likely to stage any substantial policy shake-up. Still, the election is heavy with symbolic significance.

The tally will test whether Texas is ready to elect a Latino governor--and will measure just how much progress Democrats have made in a land they expect to reclaim from Republicans as the Latino population continues to flourish. "A Sanchez victory would send a disastrous signal to the entire Republican Party," University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said.

With election day drawing near, the tumult has been steady. Televisions flash a constant stream of bilious advertisements courtesy of Perry and Sanchez. Sanchez says Perry drove up electric bills; Perry comes back with an ad implying that Sanchez's bank laundered drug money. And on it goes. The barrage of pricey advertisements might help explain the cascade of $72 million in campaign cash the two men have already run through. Sanchez shelled out almost $58 million of that, most of it coming straight from his pocket.

This week, former state Atty. Gen. Dan Morales broke with fellow Democrats to endorse Perry. Morales lost the Democratic nomination last spring to Sanchez's flawless Spanish and enthused talk of affirmative action. These days, Morales calls Sanchez "divisive."

"I think what the voters got to see this evening is someone who's frankly not ready for prime time," said Morales, who watched Wednesday's debate in pinstripes and cowboy boots.

If their ideas stayed cloaked in vagaries and tangible policy disputes were few and far between, the debate did manage to draw sharp contrasts in the men's styles.

A measured Perry offered up a parade of concise slogans. Over and over, he repeated his mantra: "Experience." Seventeen years, to be exact, he reminded the audience three times. He responded to questions with a few snappy lines--"I believe in preparations for the future, not reparations for the past"--then shut his mouth and waited for his time to run out.

Sanchez poured his words out in a rush, pounding out strings of examples until the moderator interrupted. When the cameras stopped rolling, Sanchez swept from the stage in the crush of his wife and four adult children, burst into a gathering of reporters and proclaimed himself the winner. "I'm pumped," Sanchez said. "I feel good; feel like I beat him."

Perry, meanwhile, slipped onto the arm of his wife, flashed a dimpled grin and a triumphant thumb to the audience--and disappeared for the rest of the night, leaving his spokesmen to talk to reporters.

Despite the free spending, Sanchez is straggling behind Perry in the polls. The first thing most voters know about him is that he's rich--an oil, gas and banking baron who grew up in the Texas borderlands.

The state's first Mexican American nominee from one of the two major political parties, Sanchez has framed himself as a political outsider: a tough minority businessman who will brush away the pomp and pork of Perry and his ilk--whom Sanchez dismisses as "career politicians"--and make appointments whose race and ethnic diversity "reflect the face of Texas."

"I am a minority," Sanchez reminded the audience at Rice University on Wednesday night. But he needs the white centrist vote, and has veered from deep ethnic discussion ever since the messy primary campaign. "By no means is he running as la raza unida," University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan said.

Sanchez took some blows early on, when Republicans plundered his past for scandalous tidbits. In the early 1980s, Mexican drug-money launderers deposited $25 million into one of Sanchez's banks. The troubled Tesoro Savings and Loan of Laredo went on to fail in 1988 because of bad loans, a collapse that cost taxpayers a $161-million bailout. In the early 1990s, Sanchez paid a $1-million settlement to end a federal review.

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