Even before the first votes are counted, Republicans appear to have gained an advantage over Democrats in today's Texas gubernatorial primary, the first tangible test in the two-party struggle for national political dominance in the 1990s.
After six months of campaigning, maverick Republican businessman Clayton W. Williams not only has emerged as the prohibitive favorite to gain his party's nomination, but also as the most compelling political personality in either party.
By contrast, whoever wins the Democratic competition--state Treasurer Ann Richards, Atty. Gen. Jim Mattox or former governor Mark White--will have to work hard to overcome the scars left by a negative and disjointed campaign.
These events could hardly have taken place in a more significant setting.
The governorship is considered a key for Democrats desperate to regain the White House, which they have not won in this century without carrying Texas. "A lot of what 1990 is about is collecting building blocks for 1992," said Mark Gearan, executive director of the Democratic Governors Assn.
For Republicans the name of the 1990 game in Texas is reapportionment. This state is expected to pick up at least three and maybe four additional House seats after the next census. By winning the governorship, the GOP hopes to block efforts by the Democrats to use their anticipated continued dominance of the Texas Legislature to manipulate redistricting to their advantage.
"This is the whole ball of wax for the 1990s," says Michelle Davis, Gearan's opposite number at the Republican Governors Assn. "The only way we can compete for control of Congress is to have fair lines drawn in the states and we need to get the governorship to do that."
Williams's success so far appears to have significance extending beyond the borders of Texas because of his message, which seems to steal the traditional thunder of the Democratic Party.
In the past Democrats have found a receptive climate for their customary stress on government activism in states such as Texas. Here the economy is still struggling and vital public services such as education lag far beyond needs because of the energy collapse of a few years back.
But Williams has promised to make things right by utilizing the savvy he acquired steering his various high-tech enterprises through the troubled economic waters of the late 1980s. "We have to learn to manage our state more efficiently, like we have been doing in the Texas oil fields," Williams argues.
Meanwhile, the debate on the Democratic side seems to some critics to reflect what they contend is the national party's lack of will and imagination.
"In Washington their leaders spend their time wringing their hands," says Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor. "Here in Texas their candidates seem caught up by malaise, uncertainity and confusion."
The Texas Observer, a respected liberal publication, labeled all three Democratic candidates as "tax evaders" for being unwilling to directly confront the state's acknowledged revenue needs. The Democratic campaign has degenerated into a personality contest with a heavy emphasis on mudslinging.
Richards, the early front runner, and a recovering alcoholic, appeared to have hurt herself badly earlier in the month when during a televised campaign debate she refused to directly respond to a question about whether she had ever used illegal drugs.
But she fought back with a television commercial that was a double-barreled attack on her opponents. The commercial reminded voters that during his term as governor that ended in 1986 White had raised taxes despite a campaign promise not to do so. It then charged: "He took our tax money to line his own pockets," an accusation supported only by the depiction of the deed of trust to a $1.1-million mansion White bought after he left office.
As for Mattox, the commercial asserted that he had received a $200,000 contribution from a developer, Danny Faulkner, now under indictment for real estate conspiracy. "Mattox and White," the ad concluded. "The worst resumes money can buy."
Mattox and White both cried foul. But the counterattack apparently stopped Richards' decline. At any rate, a late poll showed the three candidates in what amounted to a dead heat.
The bad news for Democrats is that their internecine campaign is almost certain to continue between the two top vote getters in today's balloting until the nominee is selected in a runoff election on April 10.
On the Republican side, polls show Williams with more than 50% of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff. Railroad Commissioner Kent Hance is in second place with former secretary of state Jack Rains and Dallas lawyer Tom Luce far behind.