Texans look at gubernatorial nominees--and don't much like either of them

October 10, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

MARSHALL, Texas -- The people of Texas expected Billy the Kid vs. Annie Oakley when Republican Clayton W. Williams Jr. squared off against Democrat Ann W. Richards in this fall's governor's contest.

What they got instead was more like Gabby Hayes meets Calamity Jane.

The prolonged, often nasty, sometimes inept campaign has Texans shaking their heads over the slim pickings on the November ballot.

According to officials in both parties, Mr. Williams, a cowboy-hatted millionaire whose earthy comments have caused problems with female voters, holds a solid -- possibly insurmountable -- lead over Ms. Richards, the silver-coiffed state treasurer known best for her uproarious keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

A Williams victory, coupled with a potential re-election landslide for Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, has GOP leaders hopeful, and Democrats increasingly nervous, that 1990 could produce a historic shift in political control of statewide offices to the Republican Party.

But prospects for major GOP gains are clouded by concerns about voter apathy. Experts say that a vast segment of the electorate in the nation's third-most-populous state has been totally turned off by the race for governor.

That disaffection was evident even at a Williams rally the other night in Marshall, in traditionally Democratic East Texas, where more than 250 people paid $12 each to eat tacos and enchiladas and greet the Republican candidate.

High school teacher Diane Seal said that she thinks Mr. Williams is "still better" than Ms. Richards but that she "would like to see a strong write-in campaign" for someone else.

"Right now, most people are for none of the above," explained Jolyn Campbell, a fellow teacher. Indeed, 46 percent of the respondents in a recent statewide poll said they would cast a vote of no confidence in either candidate if they could.

Ms. Richards, whose candidacy is criticized as directionless by members of her own camp, professes not to be overly concerned by polls showing her 10 points or more behind.

"What's really important is that Clayton Williams has spent $3 million on television since the primary and he hasn't moved," she said. "The public is saying, 'Despite the fact that this guy is on my television set every night, there's something there I don't like.' "

Mr. Williams, 58, became the hottest Republican phenomenon in the nation last winter when he won the GOP primary. A rancher and oilman whose personal fortune is said to exceed $100 million, he sank $6.5 million of his own money into a brilliantly conceived ad campaign that played on voter dissatisfaction with state government and the state's romance with the Old West myth.

A natural on television, he is also a master salesman. Mr. Williams likes to brag about how, in his early days, he persuaded working-class Texans to spend their beer money on life insurance premiums.

"I'm not a politician, and I'm not a lawyer," he said the other night in Marshall, where his considerable talents as a campaigner were on display. After heartily shaking hands with everyone in the hall, he hopped on stage to offer the 20-minute stump speech that seldom varies.

He promises to wage a $1.6 million war on drugs, slash non-school spending and block any attempt to raise taxes, a mix that state government experts find unfeasible, particularly with Texas under court order to upgrade its prisons and alter the way it finances education.

Critics say Mr. Williams does not understand how to turn his views into workable government policies, a criticism that one Republican who has spent a great deal of time with the candidates agrees is his greatest weakness.

"I don't have it figured out," Mr. Williams says, as he describes his plan to offer "parental choice" in education by giving state money to religious and private schools. But he draws applause when he follows up by saying that the bureaucrats in

Austin "have been there so long they're part of the problem instead of part of the solution."

Despite his sometimes buffoonish behavior on the stump, even adversaries say Mr. Williams is highly intelligent. And despite his image as a countrified newcomer to politics, he's no rookie after nearly 18 months of heavy campaigning. When a local TV news crew stepped up to question him after the rally, the candidate personally pulled the cameraman into position so the crowd would appear in the shot.

His irrepressibility is both an asset and his biggest political liability. His staff of veteran campaign consultants, aware that the only thing that can keep him from winning

would be a string of major gaffes, has worked to sharply reduce his availability to the press.

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