Challengers look to break from pack, catch Perry in final weeksBy KELLEY SHANNON, Associated Press
AUSTIN - Republican Gov. Rick Perry has been saying all along that Democrat Chris Bell is his main election opponent.
It may be time to believe it.
Judging from Perry's words and his campaign's attacks the past few days, Bell is his current target after weeks of swatting at independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Bell and the Democrats seem to relish the role.
They see a possible path to victory as they try to round up enough of the party faithful to vote for Bell and pull him out of the pack of challengers. But that could be tough with Strayhorn and independent candidate Kinky Friedman running. A recent Dallas Morning News poll showed Bell with the support of only 39 percent of the state's Democrats.
This week, Bell tried to persuade Friedman to quit the race, saying that they share the goal of new leadership in Austin and that it made sense to join forces. Friedman refused.
"Apparently, he sees it differently," Bell said.
Friedman said his opponent is the two-party system - and that includes the Democratic candidate Bell.
With less than a month before the Nov. 7 election, a challenger who hopes to overtake front-runner Perry would have to quickly increase and congeal his support.
"It seems to me that the campaigns are just basically treading water right now," said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. "The pie can't be divided four ways and anyone defeat Perry, at least at this point."
Perry, who leads in polls and money, is trying to prevent anyone from breaking away from the rest. Perry emphasized again this week that he considers Bell his primary competition.
"I consider everybody who's on the ticket to be a viable candidate. It's the reason I get up every day and talk about my record," Perry said, but he stressed his differences with Bell in particular, calling him a "former Washington liberal Democrat" with "very left-leaning beliefs." Perry said he stands for conservative Republican values.
Bell enjoyed a surge after his solid performance in a televised gubernatorial debate, which was followed by a $1 million contribution Monday from Houston trial lawyer John O'Quinn and O'Quinn's pledge to raise $4 million more, more television ads and more vocal support from other Democrats.
Bell finished the week with fresh criticisms of Perry, calling him a "deadbeat governor" and claiming he hasn't given enough of federal homeland security grants to local governments and instead has funneled some to a company represented by a campaign contributor.
Almost simultaneously, Perry put out his first negative ad Friday. It shows a huge shark while music from the movie "Jaws" drums in the background. It highlights the O'Quinn contribution and suggests Bell will raise taxes and leave the border unprotected.
Earlier in the week, Perry spokesman Robert Black called O'Quinn a "billionaire trial lawyer sugar daddy" and brought up O'Quinn's past - accusations about professional misconduct, a driving while intoxicated arrest and even details from his divorce.
It was somewhat reminiscent of 2002, when Perry's campaign tried to link Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez to murderous Mexican drug traffickers.
O'Quinn said some of the Perry accusations are false and none involve Bell's campaign. He said Perry ought to talk about issues instead.
"I'm not even running for governor. This guy must be really scared and frightened of me for this kind of personal attack," O'Quinn said.
Bell said Perry's criticism of O'Quinn is hypocritical, considering Perry's own high-dollar contributors, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry and San Antonio businessman and private school voucher advocate James Leininger. The two have given Perry more than $2 million over the past nine years, Bell said, citing figures from Texans for Public Justice and the Texas Ethics Commission.
"Rick Perry is so far in the pockets of his campaign contributors, he's willing to gut our public school system to please them," Bell said.
Perry has said he will sign a private school voucher measure into law if the Legislature passes one.
Perry is still in the driver's seat in the race, and Bell will have to try to be competitive with his new money to buy television ads statewide and to fund a get-out-the-vote ground operation in heavily Democratic South Texas, said Polinard, the UT-Pan Am professor.
"If he can get the people to the polls, they're generally going to vote Democrat," Polinard said of the Rio Grande Valley.
The Morning News poll showed 38 percent of likely voters backing Perry, 18 percent supporting Strayhorn, 15 percent backing Bell and 14 percent for Friedman. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
If Bell or any candidate could move close to or above 30 percent, he or she could compete with Perry, assuming his support doesn't grow.
In recent Texas governor elections, albeit far less crowded than this one, Democrats Ann Richards and Sanchez got 46 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in their losses in 1994 and 2002. Democrat Garry Mauro had 31 percent against George W. Bush in 1998.
Perry, who won 58 percent of the vote against Sanchez four years ago, may not have that much support this time. But he's working in his typical aggressive fashion to get what he needs.
By batting down challengers and avoiding any October stumbles, he may well get there.
Associated Press writer April Castro contributed to this report. Kelley Shannon has covered Texas politics and government in Austin since 2000.