AUSTIN, Texas -- In one of his less felicitous moments, Clayton Williams, the Republican candidate for governor here, lapsed into cowboy jargon to describe his intentions toward Ann Richards, his Democratic opponent. "I'll head and hoof her, and drag her through the dirt," he crowed.
Now Richards is running a television commercial reminding voters of that remark and several other Claytie-isms, such as his suggestion that you should treat rape like bad weather: "if it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it." The spot ends with film of a grinning Williams saying of Richards: "I hope she didn't go back to drinking again," a reference to her history as an alcoholic during the 1970s. Then the announcer says in an incredulous tone: "Governor Williams?"
The commercial reflects a growing belief among Democrats, with which some Republican professionals agree, that the flamboyant oilman-rancher entrepreneur from West Texas, may have begun to lose some of his charm for the voters since he won a four-candidate primary with a stunning 61 percent of the vote last spring.
They may be right. Williams "took a hit," as one of his advisers phrased it, when he invited a television news crew to film him marching up to Richards, calling her a liar and refusing to shake her hand. Polls taken by both campaigns show his negatives approaching 50 percent, usually enough to be the kiss of death for any candidate.
The slump in Williams' fortunes has coincided with what seems to be a generic reaction against Republicans at the national level. Polls taken by both sides here now show President Bush's disapproval rating at about 35 percent among Texas voters, twice what it was only a few weeks ago. "The Bush numbers are taking a bath," said a Republican familiar with recent polls taken for Williams.
The change in the complexion of the campaign has been pronounced enough that Democrats are claiming to have two different polls showing Richards has moved in the past two weeks from more than 10 percent behind to essentially even. "It's the accumulated weight of his misstatements," a Richards adviser argues. "His act has wore old."
Not everyone agrees. Karl Rove, a highly regarded Republican professional not involved in the campaign, says: "I think it's getting a little tighter, but I still think it's over." Williams, Rove argues, has absorbed all the damage of his gaffes and is still ahead, so things can only get better for him.
Williams is taking few chances, running a campaign in which he has been increasingly protected and refusing to debate. His message is being carried by as much as 900 gross rating points of television commercials a week, enough so the theoretically average viewer would see them nine times. He is using the message that Republicans in the South always rely on most. Williams is "the conservative" and Richards "the liberal," his commercials announce.
Whatever you think of the accuracy of the polls -- the last published one here had Williams leading by only 5 percent -- the operative question is turnout. Richards' negatives are even higher than Williams' -- thus painting a picture of an electorate obviously unhappy with the choice they have been offered. That is usually a prescription for a low turnout, but where and among what groups of potential voters?
The reaction against the two candidates is causing some odd patterns in the electorate. Richards surprisingly is running even or better in Dallas, apparently because suburban Republicans there find Claytie a little rough for their tastes. But Richards is running well below Democratic norms with rural voters in East Texas and Mexican-American voters in South Texas; neither of these groups easily accepts women candidates. Richards has special strength among younger women because of her strong identification on the abortion rights issue. But as state treasurer, she has never had the kind of political relationship with blacks that other liberal Democrats ordinarily enjoy.
Two weeks ago, Williams had such an imposing lead that some Democrats were afraid of losing elections further down the ballot, including the campaign for lieutenant governor, the office with the greatest political clout in the state. But today, the Democrats are far more confident. Ann Richards may not win the governorship, but she is making it at least responsible. And Claytie Williams is proving he is no political giant after all.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.