- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

FORT WORTH, Texas — State Democrats emerged from their convention here over the weekend with conviction and verve, but they still face an uphill battle to take back the governor’s mansion.

Chris Bell, the one-term congressman from Houston who was gerrymandered out of his district in 2002, is the party’s choice to oppose Republican Gov. Rick Perry. Mr. Perry is seeking his second full term.

Mr. Bell, 46, said he could win if the party faithful would stick together.

The Houston Democrat certainly needs that, but his own campaign workers concede that few voters have ever heard of Mr. Bell, making name recognition a dominant theme in the campaign.

“If we don’t solve this problem,” said Bell spokesman Jason Stanford, “then nothing else matters.”

Texas Monthly magazine recently nicknamed the likable Mr. Bell “Sisyphus,” after the mythological Greek figure who spent most of his life unsuccessfully trying to roll a huge stone to the top of a mountain.

But Mr. Bell is an optimist, and he was buoyed by the excitement of an estimated 6,000 people who packed the convention. He told them that he would lead a “new Texas revolution” to make the state’s school and health systems among the best in the nation.

He urged delegates to embrace “the party’s traditional core issues of education and health care” as the key to winning in November.

The 2006 governor’s race is one of the most interesting — and probably the most unpredictable — in recent memory. There are likely to be five candidates — Republican incumbent Mr. Perry; Mr. Bell; two independent candidates, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman; and Libertarian James Werner.

Mr. Perry has led most every early poll, hanging solidly at 35 percent to 40 percent. Mrs. Strayhorn — once a Democrat, then a Republican, now independent — usually has placed second.

Mr. Bell finished second in a March poll commissioned by the Wall Street Journal, getting 21 percent of public support to Mr. Perry’s 36 percent, with Mrs. Strayhorn and Mr. Friedman at 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

To win the office, a majority of the vote is not needed. The candidate with the most votes wins. Some say that unless there is a huge turnout, the next governor could garner less than 40 percent of the vote.

Although his campaign says name recognition is Mr. Bell’s biggest hurdle, there seems little doubt that money is also a problem.

Campaign-expense reports won’t be made public for a few days, but Bell staffers privately say he has raised “more than $1 million.” Mr. Perry reported more than $9 million before the March primary election, and Mrs. Strayhorn came in at more than $8 million. Mr. Bell had only about $100,000 at that point.

“He’s got to find some deep pockets, or he can’t compete,” said Ray Gravely, a San Antonio salesman. “Texas is so vast. It costs so much to run.”

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