Reporting from Dallas — By several measures, Texas Gov. Rick Perry should be cruising to reelection for a record third term.
He is a conservative Republican in a conservative state, more residents believe Texas is moving in the right direction than do not, and the Democratic Party has failed to win any statewide office since 1994.
Yet Perry maintains just a single-digit lead in recent polls over Democrat Bill White, the well-funded former Houston mayor.
Last week, the Democratic Governors Assn. sent a strong message that it thinks the race remains prime for an upset, paying for a television ad that attacks Perry as an out-of-touch career politician. The group — also targeting races in California and Florida — has contributed $2 million directly to the White campaign, more than it has ever given for a Texas gubernatorial race.
White is "by far the strongest candidate [in Texas] that we've had in decades," said Nathan Daschle, the association's executive director.
The race in Texas is the flip side of other close races across the country, where a dour economy and anti-establishment fervor has lashed incumbents. Perry regularly touts his time in office for helping buffer the state from the worst of the recession. And his bona-fide conservative credentials — built around themes of limited government, states' rights and fiscal responsibility — have garnered wide support from grass-roots activists like the "tea party" movement.
"He got out in front of the tea party disaffection very early. He identified himself with it," said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin and former advisor to the George W. Bush presidential campaigns.
The threat to Perry, some say, is more ambivalence than venom after so long in office.
"There's Perry fatigue after 10 years," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "He's in no sense a galvanizing figure. What he offers to Texans is the very simple promise: I will not raise your taxes. For a majority of Texans that gets you almost the whole distance you need" to win.
White, a Harvard-educated lawyer and businessman who served as deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration, ridicules Perry's attempts to portray himself as an outsider after two decades in statewide office.
"The public reaction is derision," he said in an interview last week.
White ticks off the issues he thinks will bring Texans to the polls Nov. 2, including the state's poor high school graduation rate, border security and more efficient government as Texas faces a budget deficit estimated at about $20 billion.
"I believe in limited government, but I do believe there are certain essential functions that we must perform well," he said.
For White to win, observers say, he needs to do well in urban areas while attracting independent and moderate voters. The former mayor points to polling that shows that more than a quarter of Texas voters still do not have much of an opinion of him. He trails the governor by 6- and 7-percentage-point margins in two recent polls.
"The independents who know something about me have broken in my direction from Day One of this race," he said.
Perry, who did not respond to a request for an interview, will be counting on his base to show up on election day.
In Dallas, that means voters like 85-year-old Morris Melton, who has seen his fair share of Texas elections. This year, he says, he is more motivated than ever to vote for Republicans.
"I just think that government in Washington's gone crazy, just gone insane," Melton said. "Perry is the exact opposite of that. This year, if I got shot and wouldn't have but 30 minutes to live, I'd go vote."
Despite a narrower lead than some expected, Perry remains the favorite to prevail, a victory that could propel him into a national spotlight.
"I think the Perry people are clearly thinking about a national future," Shaw said. "I think his profile is absolutely perfect. He's got these tea party, outsider credentials, but he's actually governed a large state."
Meyer writes for The Times.