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Texas Race Both Colorful and a Little Kinky

Among those seeking to become governor are a Jewish cowboy comedian and `one tough grandma.' Many voters are undecided.

September 28, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Kinky Friedman, the musician, mystery writer and self-styled Jewish cowboy running for governor of Texas, was stumping for votes in a smoky beer bar called the Flying Saucer, and spraying one-liners like a Gatling gun.

Rick Perry, the Republican governor, "had done a pretty good job -- as a cheerleader at Texas A&M," Friedman joked to raucous applause. Perry had served on the Aggies' pep squad, an apparent political no-no in this macho slice of the Lone Star State.

Friedman then introduced his guest of honor, an unusual voice of political gravitas fresh off the beaches of Baja California. Sporting a nascent attempt at dreadlocks and a braided beard, Jesse Ventura stared out over the crowd of under-40s. The former pro wrestler said it felt like 1998, when he stunned the country by wooing enough disaffected voters to win the Minnesota governorship.

"We haven't had an independent governor in Texas since Sam Houston," Ventura said in his wrestler's growl. But he predicted that "Kinky will win -- if you have a big voter turnout."

The barroom appearance was another odd moment in a four-way race for governor that has begun living up to its billing as one of the most colorful contests in recent Texas history.

In addition to the GOP incumbent and the cigar-chomping comedian, there is Carole Keeton Strayhorn, another independent candidate, who waged a losing battle to be called "grandma" on the ballot, and Democrat Chris Bell, who is pushing a "Don't Mess with Ethics" reform plan, a play on the state's famous anti-litter slogan, "Don't Mess with Texas."

Whether the Texas campaign will be close as well as colorful, however, remains to be seen.

Polls have consistently shown that Perry, who analysts say lacks the folksy charisma that helped popularize former governors such as Ann Richards and George W. Bush, is vulnerable to defeat -- some surveys gauge his support as low as 31%. Yet, with a little more than a month left in the race, no challenger has made a move, raising the likelihood that a splintered vote will get Perry reelected.

A Survey USA poll taken two weeks ago showed Perry with 35% of the vote, followed by Bell and Friedman with 23% each and Strayhorn with 15%. A Zogby International/Wall Street Journal poll earlier had shown the race much closer, with Perry at 31%, Bell at 25%, Friedman at 22% and Strayhorn at 11%.

A fifth candidate, Libertarian James Werner, is trailing far behind the rest but hopes to play the spoiler.

Texas political experts said that although Perry maintained a sizable lead, many voters still were undecided. All four major candidates have enough money to run television ads, making it impossible to predict who will come out on top on election day.

"Nobody has gotten quite close enough to scare" Perry, said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "But we have not seen the heaviest barrage of attack ads, and in a multi-candidate race, it's not always the person launching the attacks who winds up benefiting."

Strayhorn -- the Texas comptroller who calls herself "one tough grandma" -- initially was considered the most serious challenger, thanks to a combination of personality, a hefty war chest and an insider's knowledge of statehouse politics. But her campaign has not taken off.

At a stop this week beside the Houston Ship Channel -- where the supporter who introduced Strayhorn also cracked wise about Perry's cheerleading past -- the comptroller attributed her poor poll numbers to the fact that she remarried and has a new last name.

"Now that people know me as Strayhorn -- now that they know that's who the 'one tough grandma' is -- I'm going to be moving up," she said. "It's either four more years of the same thing, or one tough grandma who's going to shake Austin up."

Bell, a former congressman and Houston City Council member best known for lodging an ethics complaint against then House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas), was widely perceived as a sacrificial lamb months ago, and his campaign has struggled with minimal support from the Democratic Party.

But Bell has been gaining traction, thanks in part to the verbal gaffes of Friedman -- who angered African American leaders by calling Hurricane Katrina evacuees "crackheads and thugs" during a speech about Houston's rising crime.

Some political experts say Bell, whose fundraising has picked up, now may have the best shot of unseating Perry.

"I can be a corpse and get 31% just based on the straight Democratic vote," Bell said. "The question is can I get the rest, the 8% more that I probably need to win, and I feel pretty good about it now that Kinky is admittedly going after the redneck vote."

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