- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In a high-stakes Texas shootout with national implications, conservative champion Gov. Rick Perry is seeking an unprecedented third full term this fall, while Democrats tout former Houston Mayor Bill White as their best hope in years for a breakthrough victory in the nation’s fastest-growing big state.

With the winner likely to be a rising star on the national political stage, the two have already taken to exchanging accusations about their respective resumes.

To hear the White camp tell it, Mr. Perry, a favorite of Republican conservatives since taking over from then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, is an overly ambitious presidential wannabe and a knee-jerk extension of his party’s “extremist” wing.

“People want somebody who will shoot straight - not just somebody who is the voice of one wing of one party, or who is using the governor’s office to run for some other office,” Mr. White said last week in a Dallas Morning News interview.

To hear the Perry camp tell it, Mr. White, a deputy energy secretary under President Clinton and former three-term mayor of one of the country’s more conservative cities is “a frustrated liberal trial lawyer seeking any office to occupy,” in the words of Perry consultant Dave Carney.

The outcome of the Nov. 2 contest is likely to be a key indicator for beleaguered Democrats who are hoping to halt the momentum of recent Republican electoral triumphs in blue states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts and avoid a major blowout in the midterm elections.

The governor clearly hopes to tie unpopular Obama administration policies to Mr. White and other Democratic candidates on the ballot this fall.

The Washington Times has learned that, Mr. Perry, working from a telephone list of 150,000 voters in four targeted districts, will host a last-minute “tele-town hall” on Thursday.

The aim is to urge independent voters in the state to demand their representatives vote against Mr. Obama’s signature health care overhaul plan when the crucial House floor vote comes up in the coming days.

The targeted Democrats are Reps. Silvestre Reyes, Henry Cuellar, Solomon P. Ortiz and Ciro D. Rodriguez. With an extremely close vote predicted, turning even one Democratic member could sink the measure in the House.

The Texas gubernatorial contest pits two of the state’s most potent vote-getters.

Both Mr. Perry and Mr. White boast a 54 percent approval rating. Despite Texas’ red state reputation, Mr. Perry leads Mr. White by only six percentage points in the latest Rasmussen poll, with White voters marginally more enthusiastic about their candidate.

Raising the stakes even higher, the next Texas governor will play a critical role in the state’s redistricting process, with the 2010 census projected to give the state four new seats in the House of Representatives, up from the current 32.

The contest was bound to attract outsized attention because Texas is simply too big to be messed with or ignored. Already having 12 percent of the nation’s population, it is adding residents at a clip faster than any other large state.

Mr. Perry can point to a state economy that has prospered in the midst of a deep national recession, as well as an impressive political machine that knocked out challenger Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison - a favorite of the state party’s more moderate establishment - in a tough Republican primary earlier this month.

Mr. Perry’s profile has risen so fast that his own campaign is eager to knock down speculation - fanned by the White campaign - that the governor sees this race as a steppingstone to bigger things.

Mr. Carney insists Mr. Perry has zero interest in the 2012 Republicanpresidential nomination.

“Folks can boost him all they want, but he is not a candidate and does not want to be a candidate for national office,” Mr. Carney told The Times. “His priority is to seek re-election and keep the Texas economy strong. His sole national ambition is to help lead the fight, and rally other governors to the effort to restore the balance in the federal-state relationship.”

For his part, Mr. White can point to his ability to win votes in one of the nation’s reddest states - after barely winning election in a three-way contest in 2003, he won his second and third races with 86 percent and 91 percent of the vote, respectively. Houston’s economy also prospered during Mr. White’s tenure.

“Bill White gets results, and that’s why he was re-elected in Houston with an average of 88 percent of the vote. That’s no mirage,” spokeswoman Katy Bacon said in an interview.

“People know Bill White as a successful businessman and popular mayor who knows how to bring people together to get things done, like cutting tax rates five years in a row, while cutting crime rates to their lowest levels in decades and getting more for taxpayers’ money,” Ms. Bacon said.

Democrats are hoping that Mr. Perry’s unyieldingly conservative stands in the primary fight against Mrs. Hutchison will hurt him in the general election. But Mr. Perry was able to dispatch Mrs. Hutchison in the March 2 primary without a divisive run-off - a major disappointment to Texas Democrats.

But for now, it is the Perry machine that appears to be firing more rounds more rapidly in the early skirmishing.

“White presided over a fiscal house of cards in Houston where the new mayor is treading water in oceans of red ink,” said Perry spokesman Mr. Carney. “Houston has twice the public debt per capita as California - and that’s not easy to do.”

The Perry campaign is also eager to tie Mr. White to the Democratic Congress and Obama administration policies that do not poll well in Texas.

Mr. Carney said Mr. White “thinks cap-and-trade [energy policy] does not go far enough. He embraces the goals of Obamacare. He’s anti-gun and pro-sanctuary” for illegal immigrants.

Mr. White in turn has distanced himself from the president by slamming “the whole fiscal management of the country.” He said he supports the death penalty and gun rights under the Second Amendment, and claims to have been more aggressive on enforcing immigration laws than almost any other mayor in Texas.

But the Democrat is also pro-choice on abortion and opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, arguing that politicians ought to spend more time thinking about staying married themselves than about whom other people marry.

Mr. White hit a sour note with economic conservatives by not ruling out raising taxes to avoid cuts in state services. A quarter of likely Texas voters align themselves with the anti-spending “tea party” movement.

Asked to assess Mr. White, Eric Bruechner, organizer of the Mount Pleasant Tea Party Patriots, told The Times, “I don’t really know or care much about him. He’s probably just another liberal Democrat.

“Texas has a true, proven conservative governor in Rick Perry that has made our state the envy of the country,” Mr. Bruechner said. “Why change?”

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