Two lone stars ride into Texas state race

New independent candidates with a populist flair breathe new life into this year's governor's race, analysts say.

The Texas governor's race just got a lot more interesting.

That's because two independents - Carole "One Tough Grandma" Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky "How hard can it be?" Friedman - officially entered the race last week against Democrat Chris Bell and incumbent Republican Rick Perry.

Both are colorful characters, sure to make this fall's contest one of the most closely watched and entertaining of the year. But they aren't just novelty candidates: Each has enough support - and populist spark - to shake up the outcome in November.

The unique mix of candidates is expected to bring out a record number of voters. Already, it's a sign that the state's demography is changing faster than expected, shifting the power structure away from older, white evangelicals to a younger, more minority crowd, say analysts.

A win by an independent candidate - considered unlikely at this point - would be the first since Sam Houston galloped into the governor's mansion in 1859.

"We haven't had a serious independent candidate in more than a century," says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "Now we've got a couple of independents generating a lot of visibility and comment. It's quite unusual."

Texas has made it particularly difficult for independents to get on the ballot. The state allows only a 60-day window to gather signatures after the March primary, the signatures must come from registered voters who did not vote in the primary, and they must amount to 1 percent of the November 2002 gubernatorial election turnout. In all, it's one of the toughest standards in the nation.

Both candidates far exceeded the 45,540 signatures needed, and they hope to draw votes away from Governor Perry and Mr. Bell in different ways.

Ms. Strayhorn, the state comptroller, is a political veteran who began as a Demo- crat and has run as a Republican since 1986. She decided in January to join the race as an independent, political analysts say, when it looked as though she wouldn't be able to beat Perry in the primary.

She is expected to pull moderate Republicans away from Perry and conservative Democrats away from Bell.

Mr. Friedman is a political outsider, a mystery-book writer, satirist, and country musician. Analysts say he could attract new voters and draw liberal Democrats away from Bell.

So far, observers aren't reading much into campaign polls. "Three- or four-way races are tricky because voters move around and have more options," says Professor Murray. "So polls can shift dramatically."

Independent Jesse Ventura, for instance, never polled at more than 22 percent of the vote during his campaign but won the Minnesota governor's race in 1998 with 37 percent.

Each Texas candidate brings a distinct sense of mission. For Strayhorn, it's about ending Perry's "uninspired" time in office. For Friedman, it's about ending politics as usual.

"They will have very different effects on the campaign," says Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Kinky will provide tremendous entertainment value, but into the fall, people will say, 'I've heard that joke before. Show me what you've got.' And then Kinky begins to fade to the single digits."

Strayhorn, on the other hand, will be a substantial factor in the race. She has raised almost as much in campaign funds as Perry and has a long political history in Texas.

But her real challenge, says Professor Jillson, is that 60 percent of Texans vote a straight ticket. He sees Perry winning in November, "making him the longest serving governor in Texas history, and without having been very popular along the way."

Although Bell is a former US Representative, he is not as well known or well funded, and is a Democrat - a tough thing to be in Texas these days.

But he could win, says Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, if Perry suffers a political blow over school finance reform.

In recent weeks, Texas lawmakers were scrambling under a court-enforced deadline to reach agreement on school finance reform or risk cutting off state funds to schools in an election year.

But Friday, Perry and legislators came to terms on the issue. How the public reacts will be key.

"Can [Perry] be defeated? It just depends on how well received his [school finance] package is," says Professor Stein. In addition, he notes, this is a midterm election year and governors tend to suffer more when their party is doing poorly. "But right now, it's a very hard race to read."

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