TYLER, Texas (AP) — People tell Bill White he picked the wrong election to stage a rescue of the troubled Texas Democratic Party. It's a Republican year in a Republican state.
But the former Houston mayor with the bald head and oversized ears, a lawyerly man who speaks so slowly and deliberately that reporters hardly need tape recorders, has not yet faded into the familiar doom Democrats have come to expect from their gubernatorial candidates every four years.
A Democratic shocker in conservative Texas remains about as likely as a blizzard in Houston. Still, a series of recent polls shows a stubbornly tight race, in the single digits, leaving White within striking distance of longtime Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is seeking re-election to an unprecedented third term in November. A decent showing by Libertarian Kathie Glass, courting many of the same tea party conservatives Perry has charmed, could also help White if she draws enough votes away from the governor.
"White has made some inroads in what is a very bad national environment for Democrats," said University of Texas pollster and political scientist Jim Henson. "But it's a very hard slog for him."
Texas hasn't had a Democratic governor since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994, and it's been just as long since any Democrat won statewide office. But Democrats insist Perry is vulnerable. The same anti-incumbent fervor that threatens to upend the Democratic-controlled Congress is turning voters against Perry, they say.
The Democratic Governor's Association considers Texas among its "top tier" races and has showered more resources on White than any Texas Democratic candidate in the group's history, giving him more than $2 million so far, officials say.
Some political observers are "shocked" that the second-longest serving governor in the United States has a fight on his hands, said Nathan Daschle, director of the association. "But it makes sense when you think about it through the lens of a change election, why voters would start to look for an alternative," he said.
And White sees himself as the perfectly bland alternative to a smooth-talking opponent sometimes known as "Gov. Goodhair." He likes to describe the race as the "workhorse vs. the showhorse." Stylistically, there's no question that White's droning voice and plain appearance offer a stark contrast to the handsome, gun-toting, backslapping Perry, who shot a coyote while out on his morning jog earlier this year.
Perry is also a highly disciplined candidate who leaves the day-to-day details of his campaign to the professionals. Not White. He immerses himself in campaign minutiae, from the wording of press releases to the scripts of his television ads.
"I think people deserve to hear the voice of the person they're voting for, rather than something that has been sanitized, poll-tested and crafted to manipulate people," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "They like authenticity."
But White sticks to his own script, and it is difficult to draw the Harvard-educated businessman and lawyer away from his own talking points. Asked to name some living Democrats he admires, White mentioned one Democrat and one Republican — underscoring his theme of bipartisan outreach. (They were Democrat Mike Beebe of Arkansas and Indiana's GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels).
If White can seem stiff in interviews, he is more relaxed and natural when pressing the flesh with voters. On a recent swing through Tyler, a reliable Republican stronghold, White spoke passionately to retired educators, grabbing a wireless microphone and — town hall style — beginning his remarks by saying he wanted to "just have a talk." He later choked up when talking about his father, a retired teacher from San Antonio.
"I haven't supported a Democrat for governor in a long time," said Wayne Berryman, 71, a retired education administrator who came to see White speak. "I hope there are a lot more just like me."
White needs people like Berryman, who voted for Perry in the last two elections but says he is tired of him now. Before Perry, no governor had served a full eight consecutive years. Now Perry is looking at a total of 14 if he's re-elected.
Tyler, which hasn't seen a well-funded Democratic candidate in town in years, would seem an unlikely place for the Democrat to be spending valuable campaign time. But he has been here five times since May, and has visited 73 counties (Texas has 254) just since July 1.
It's part of his strategy to peel away disillusioned Perry supporters and independents, and to limit his losses in the suburbs and rural areas that are staunch Republican strongholds. White is looking to carry Houston, where he was a popular mayor, while running up the scoreboard in the Democratic strongholds of south Texas and Austin.
Perry has retained a lead in the polls, and analysts such as Henson predict undecided voters will break his way in coming weeks. The governor, who got his start in the state House in 1985 and has never lost an election, isn't taking anything for granted.
Last week, Perry began running a barrage of negative TV ads against White, seeking to tar him as a tax-and-spend liberal in the mold of President Barack Obama. The president has dismal approval ratings in Texas, which makes it tough for White no matter how many times he visits Tyler.
Retired Tyler football coach and assistant principal Dick Lindsay, 84, said he wasn't thrilled with Perry but can't vote for White because of "what's going on in Washington."
"I won't support (White)," Lindsay said. "If he was something besides a Democrat, I could vote for him."
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