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Texas Democrat campaigns far and wide

White wants voters to know Perry’s rival

- Associated Press - Monday, July 12, 2010

PECOS, Texas | Bill White's got the monogrammed cowboy boots, the worn jeans and the ability to appear at ease connecting with Texans he doesn't know but dearly needs in his race to be governor.

The campaign crisis for the would-be governor this day, though, is the hat - or, rather, the lack of one.

The Democrat's usual cap is forgotten at home in Houston, 500 miles to the east, and the fair-skinned and formerly red-haired Mr. White needs something to protect his nearly bald head from hours of unforgiving western Texas sun.

A quick stop at a convenience store doesn't offer a fix. The only caps without advertising logos are pink or carry the word "Outlaw."

Not quite the right message for the former three-term Houston mayor and energy executive who promises to "shoot straight with people."

So Mr. White forgoes a hat and borrows sunblock to continue his bid for governor by breaking into a run through the streets of Pecos, a legendary Wild West frontier town on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.

The results of the greater run - his political marathon to keep incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry from a third full term - won't be known until Texans vote in November.

"We don't have too many politicians visit Fort Stockton," businessman Pete Terrazas, 82, said of Mr. White's breakfast stop at the Steak House Restaurant in the town along Interstate 10 midway between San Antonio and El Paso. "He's listening to little people."

The strategy of canvassing off-the-beaten-track places for votes mirrors the tactic Mr. White used in Houston in 2004 when he first ran for mayor, showing up in neighborhoods and at churches.

"He's indefatigable, just incredible," said Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Institute for Urban Research at Houston's Rice University. "When he ran for mayor, he visited 300 churches in the year before he ran. And you can see that happening now; he's going to every single little place all around Texas.

Unlike Mr. Perry, a statewide presence since his election to agriculture commissioner in 1992, Mr. White needs to make himself known outside Houston.

Texas has not had a Democratic governor since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1998, and state government is fully in Republican hands. So Mr. White is expected to have a hard time defeating Mr. Perry, a straight-from-central-casting billboard for Texas who has become a national GOP figure since he succeeded Mr. Bush in 2000. Most political pundits rate the incumbent at least a slight favorite.

For Mr. White, work and education are recurring themes as he shifts from folksy politician, shaking hands with people in cowboy hats and Western shirts, and slips on a navy blazer to speak to about 100 people at a town-hall meeting in El Paso.

Some find the session, marked by long-winded questions about charter schools, immigration and financial disclosures, equally long on rhetoric from Mr. White and short on specifics.

"A whole lot of nothing," said a disappointed Laura Contreras, 20, a college student who voted for Barack Obama two years ago.

Mr. White tells them about how he's been "blessed in life that began with a modest background" to head companies, become deputy energy secretary and lead Houston.

In his standard speech, Mr. White touts that for five of the six years he was Houston mayor, he oversaw budgets that included property tax reductions.

That's true. However, taxes increased because property values and appraisals went up.

"I've worked with Bill in public crisis operations and he's very good at it," said Republican Paul Bettencourt, a former Harris County tax assessor-collector. "But on public policy issues like tax rates ... he's nowhere."

Mr. White grew up in San Antonio and recalls his first real job - thanks to a family connection with Sen. Joe Bernal of San Antonio - in 1967 as a legislative page in Austin. He became conversant in Spanish listening to Mr. Bernal's car radio on trips between San Antonio and Austin.

After Harvard and University of Texas law school, Mr. White went into the oil and gas business, became undersecretary of energy in the Clinton administration and served a few years as chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. As Houston mayor, he gained national recognition for accepting Louisiana residents fleeing Hurricane Katrina. At home, the praise was tempered with criticism for a spike in crime blamed on Katrina evacuees and for a chaotic evacuation of the city weeks later as Hurricane Rita approached.

While Mr. Perry's style can be much more effusive and passionate, Mr. White's personality tends toward the low-key and soft-spoken, although recently he has sharpened his attacks on the governor, a formidable campaigner who easily saw off a Republican primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison this spring.

"I'm not pessimistic," Mr. White said. "We've come a long way. It takes leaders to have bold vision. "Gov. Perry's best days in Texas are behind."

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