Texas Governor's Race Wide Open

Williams is Republican favorite; Democrats' Richards, Mattox chip away at each another. ANALYSIS: LONE STAR PRIMARIES

THIS year's race for governor in Texas has turned into a free-for-all involving some of the most colorful candidates to face voters in the recent history of the Lone Star state. The Republican front-runner is Clayton Williams, a west Texas entrepreneur who has spent $5.7 million of his own money pursuing the governor's chair and may spend $10 million on the race.

Mr. Williams is an oil, ranching, and telecommunications king who is well ahead of his three rivals at the polls. A political novice, Williams is a public relations whiz. He swept ahead of the other GOP candidates with a popular TV ad promising to introduce young drug offenders ``to the joys of bustin' rocks'' at boot camps dedicated to road and dam building.

The Democratic side features state Treasurer Ann Richards, whose stiff, white bouffant hairdo and country drawl captured national attention during her keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Ms. Richards is running neck and neck with former Gov. Mark White, a Houston lawyer swept out of office by a Republican in 1986, when oil prices dropped and the state economy weakened.

Richards captured national media attention last fall when she hit the talk-show circuit with her autobiography, ``Straight From the Heart,'' detailing her recovery from alcoholism and rise to statewide office. But she may have dealt herself a blow during a TV debate March 2 when she twice declined to answer whether she had ever used illegal drugs.

Richards, a public official with a sterling record who has been sober for 10 years, maintains she has been more open about her personal life than any other candidate. And, she told TV viewers, the fact that she has been repeatedly quizzed about illegal drug use sends ``a very sad message to a lot of people who think if they seek treatment they will forever bear the stigma of their addiction.''

But when her opponents, White and Attorney General Jim Mattox, were asked if they used illegal drugs, they said simply that they had not. The contrast on TV was devastating.

Mattox is a no-holds-barred campaigner who has backed up his ``Texas Tough'' slogan by personally watching 29 executions, a key theme in his TV advertising. He has been badgering reporters for weeks behind the scenes to question Richards about alleged drug use.

Following the debate, political insiders were asking why, knowing Mattox's reputation for truthfulness, the issue had not been defused months ago, and why Richards chose to leave answers to voters' imaginations. They also question whether her inexperienced campaign staff was ready for such a hotly contested race.

The 1990 elections could be a turning point in Texas history. Texas, settled by debtors, rascals, farmers, and refugees from the fallen Confederacy, has always been a solidly Democratic state.

But the balance began to shift in the 1980s, as the Sunbelt boom drew white suburban professionals southward, and conservative Democrats abandoned an increasingly liberal party. Only 69,000 Texans voted in the GOP primary in 1969, but 749,000 voted in the primary in 1988. Republicans hope to break 1 million this year. Democrats expect a March 13 primary turnout of 1.5 million.

Republican political guru Karl Rove says that 1990 marks the best chance in history for Republicans to win the hearts of Texans. The state's legislative and congressional districts will be redrawn in 1991, and Texas will probably pick up three new seats in Congress. The victorious governor will hold veto power over the redistricting process. If Republicans control redistricting, they could force Democrats into minority status.

Texans tend to elect white, male, self-made millionaires to the governorship, and Williams fits that image. He is a likable candidate with an ``aw shucks'' manner and a grin like a split watermelon. Old-line Republicans view him nervously as an inexperienced maverick, but he has so far managed to turn darts from his opponents into points for himself.

Williams, like Richards, has a gift for stand-up comedy. He once appeared before the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, in a green spangled hat, accompanied by an employee shot full of arrows to symbolize the condition of the petroleum industry. He soon had the dour gathering of unhappy survivors of the Oil Patch depression laughing and cheering.

Williams's personal fortune gives him a bottomless pit of money to spend on TV ads promoting the fact that he founded 26 companies, creating 100,000 jobs, and touting his plan to cut the budget by selling the state's fleet of aircraft and automobiles.

As the Democrats continued fighting over whether Richards smoked pot, Republicans turned to attacking Williams on grounds he is not really John Wayne. Wayne is Williams's personal hero and he owns two bronze statues of the actor.

Williams is trailed in the GOP primary by Dallas lawyer Tom Luce and former Texas Secretary of State Jack Rains, who claims Williams has spent millions of dollars deliberately promoting a John Wayne image. Ironically, it was Railroad Commisioner Kent Hance, Williams's closest rival in the GOP pack, who brought up the subject of Williams's fist fighting. Hance, who with Mattox ranks among Texas' meanest campaigners, was trying to brand Williams as an unsophisticated brawler and throwback to Texas frontier days. But in a state where people are proud of their cowboy ancestors the fact that Williams `fessed up to a couple of fistfights only boosted his popularity and he may win without a runoff.

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