Confidence abounds as Texas rivals for Governor enter the home stretch

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from Fort Worth Star Telegram,

More than a year after it began, the Texas governor’s race is entering a frenzied two-month windup toward the Nov. 4 election, with Republicans exuding confidence that they will easily keep the office that Gov. Rick Perry has held for 14 years while Democrats insist that they are within striking distance of a stunning upset.

After vaulting into the race on a torrent of fanfare from her Senate filibuster last summer, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis has consistently trailed Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott in the polls, leading some analysts to declare that the race is all but over as candidates mark the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the final nine weeks of campaigning.

But the 51-year-old former Fort Worth councilwoman and the legions of Democratic activists arrayed behind her dismiss forecasts of another Republican triumph. They assert that Democrats are within reach of the political comeback they envisioned when Davis entered the race last fall.

“I believe that I’m going to win this race,” Davis said in an interview last week after a campaign appearance in San Antonio. “I know I have the strength to get through it and to be a good governor when I do.”

Republicans are equally insistent that they will get a return trip to the Governor’s Mansion, which they have occupied in a winning streak that dates to 1994.

“It’s been 20 years since a Democrat won a statewide election in Texas,” Abbott, Texas’ longest-serving attorney general, declared at the Republican State Convention in Fort Worth. “We’re not going to let it happen this year.”

The Abbott team provoked an uproar Friday by canceling one of only two scheduled debates, then saying it would agree to a second debate with different sponsors and a different format. The fate of the second debate remained unsettled Saturday.

Hoping to catch a break, Davis and her allies have seized on last week’s bombshell court ruling declaring the school finance system unconstitutional. They called on the attorney general to drop his appeal, saying Abbott was on the wrong side by defending more than $5 billion in public school cuts by the 2011 Legislature.

But Abbott, in a telephone interview with the Star-Telegram, defended his position.

“[Davis’] approach on issues like this is to draw from the Barack Obama-Eric Holder playbook, and that is to ignore the law and abandon legal responsibility,” he said. “My job as attorney general, the job I was elected to do, is defend the laws in the state.”

Texas Democratic Party leaders also predict that another headline-grabbing development — an abuse-of-power indictment against Perry — will give them additional ammunition to decry the “corrupt” Republican power structure in place for two decades.

The indictment says Perry overstepped his constitutional authority by trying to force the resignation of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after a drunken-driving arrest. Davis has called the indictment “very, very serious” but has taken a restrained position, declining to join state party leaders in demanding Perry’s resignation.

Both candidates, while separated by ideology and conflicting visions for the state, have brought compelling personal stories to the campaign.

Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, has been paralyzed from the waist down since 1984 when he was struck by a tree while running. He announced his candidacy on the 29th anniversary of the accident, promising to wield his “spine of steel” to fight for Texans.

Davis has laced her campaign message with an up-by-the-bootstraps narrative that began after her parents divorced and she found herself living in a trailer park as a 19-year-old single mother. She went on to graduate from TCU and Harvard Law School.

Davis has portrayed herself as the candidate of “hardworking Texans” and depicted Abbott as the “ultimate insider” who’s part of “the good-old-boy network” that she says dominates the Austin political establishment. Her first ad accused Abbott of siding with a corporation over a rape victim when he was a Supreme Court justice.

Abbott has cast Davis as an Obama liberal with a record “that’s toxic to Texas” and out of step with the conservative mainstream because of her positions on abortion and other issues.

“The reality is that voters don’t start paying attention until about six weeks before the election,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an online political newsletter.

“Summertime for both campaigns is about infrastructure and fundraising. Labor Day is obviously the takeoff of the real election.”

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