When Texas GOP gubernatorial front-runner Clayton W. Williams Jr. was told recently that his Democratic foe, Ann Richards, claimed to have poll results showing that she was closing on his lead, he retorted: "I hope she didn't go back to drinking again."
His remark outraged the supporters of Richards, who is a recovering alcoholic. But beneath their indignation was a thinly concealed satisfaction: Clayton Williams had shot his mouth off again.
The episode illustrates the degree to which the campaign in this politically crucial state is dominated by negatives--a focus on the foibles and flaws of both candidates, leaving substantive issues receiving scant attention from voters.
"This is a real spitting-match," says Tom Perdue, an Austin hospital official who attended a Williams speech here last week on the war against drugs. "They don't have campaigns like this in California," added Perdue, who moved here last year from Mill Valley.
A Gallup Poll taken two weeks ago showed Williams in front by 10 percentage points, helped by surprisingly strong support from Latinos and conservative Democrats in East Texas. But it also showed nearly half of those interviewed would vote against both candidates if given the chance.
Democrats and Republicans disagree about which side is most to blame for the high muck content of this campaign, and over whether Richards has a serious chance of overtaking "Claytie," as Williams says he likes to be called.
But on one point there is little disagreement: The trend in the campaign so far spells bad news for the Democratic Party's future, not only here in the Lone Star State but all around the country.
Unless the Democrats can recapture the governor's office in Austin, they will lose an opportunity to dominate the reapportionment process in this fast-growing state, which is expected to gain four House seats after the 1990 census is completed.
They also will lose the chance to use gubernatorial clout to boost the prospects of their 1992 presidential standard-bearer to carry this state, without which the Democrats have never won the White House in this century.
Finally, a defeat here in Texas--which is still digging out from the past decade's energy bust--would suggest that the Republicans are stealing the Democratic Party's thunder: the ability to convince voters that Democrats are better at providing government services.
There are several reasons that Williams has amassed a substantial lead in his competition with Richards, who first came to national attention by quipping at the 1988 Democratic convention that George Bush had been "born with a silver foot in his mouth."
For one thing, helped by $6 million of his own money, he has outspent Richards by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1--$15 million to her $7.8 million. Then too, Texas--like most of the Sun Belt--has been steadily becoming more conservative and more Republican.
But perhaps the most important reason that Richards is still an underdog four weeks before Election Day is the kind of campaign she has chosen to run.
"She just hasn't given people a lot of reasons to vote for her," says fellow Democrat Gary Mauro, the state land commissioner--although he still believes that Richards has a chance to win.
Independent analysts say both candidates have been avoiding reality. "The real issue in this state is money, and nobody wants to address the imbalance between revenue and the state's real needs," says University of Houston analyst Richard Murray.
Both Richards and Williams claim that by relying on efficient management and increased economic growth, they can govern the state without a tax increase. Williams has been the more vehement on this point.
"I've said I will veto not only an income tax but any tax," Williams reminded reporters here last week. "What's more important is that Republicans in the House will sustain that veto. We are going to force the state of Texas to live within its means."
Richards, finishing her second term as state treasurer at 57, likes to stress her opponent's inexperience. Williams has never held public office.
"He has spent millions of dollars to buy television time to become governor of the state of Texas with no qualifications whatsoever," Richards told a rally in front of the brick courthouse in Georgetown, about 25 miles north of Austin.
"What's he going to do when they have a hearing on the floor of the Senate or the House," she jeered, "send a 30-second video?"
Indeed, Williams, who is also 57, revels in his role as an outsider.
"I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a politician," he told the audience here during a speech on drugs. He says he was drawn into politics by the discovery that his teen-age son had become dependent on beer and marijuana.
Williams contends that by relying on the lessons he learned in building his fortune in ranching, oil, gas, banking and telecommunications--and by depending on the homespun values of Texas' legendary past--he can devise fresh solutions to the state's complex problems.
"During the campaign one fella said to me, 'Claytie, you can't ride horseback into the 21st Century,' " Williams told an audience recently. "Well you can too-- you can if you ride a good horse," he insisted.
"The horse I've ridden is named honesty, named integrity, named knowing you got to give a day's work when you get a day's pay.
"There are some teachings from the Bible in my coat pocket, and good men and women at my side. And if you want me we'll saddle up and ride to Austin. And with your help, we'll get back our Texas and get back our futures.
But Richards' vaunted seasoning in government--six years as county commissioner and eight years in her current post--and Williams' acknowledged lack of experience do not seem to be helping her or hurting him in the campaign.
By a margin of 52% to 43%, voters polled by Rice University analyst Robert Stein said that Williams, rather than Richards, is focusing more on issues that concern them most.
While Williams' positions may be sketchy, Stein explains, "he has at least paid his respects" to such key concerns as drugs, crime and education. Stein contends that Richards has chosen to attack Williams instead of stressing basic issues.
That strategy may well have been partly inspired by the example of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who many Democrats believe might have won the election if he had only replied in kind to the harsh attacks on him by the Bush campaign.
According to her biography "Straight from the Heart," Richards urged the beleaguered Dukakis to take off the gloves before it was too late.
"I don't know what it takes to get you mad," she claims to have told him, "but they are insulting your integrity, your patriotism, your wife. It's justified that you respond in anger."
Dukakis shrugged off the advice, but Richards had no hesitation practicing what she preached when she launched her drive to overtake Williams last summer.
"I came out of a hard-fought primary, and I faced an uphill battle against someone who had no negatives," she recalled last week.
Besides the scars she bore from the intra-party battle, she received others after Williams' supporters ran radio commercials that accused her of supporting the "liberal agenda of the gay and lesbian caucus."
They also contended that she was being supported by Death Row inmates, actress Jane Fonda and "every tax-and-spend liberal in Hollywood and New York."
The Richards campaign struck back with commercials contending that Williams' success in the business world--one of the mainstays of his candidacy--had come from sharp dealings.
Meanwhile, Richards' staffers helped the press uncover stories about other allegedly unsavory business practices.
Williams was already on the defensive, nursing some self-inflicted verbal wounds--notably from his likening of bad weather to rape, saying "if it's inevitable, relax and enjoy it," and a confession that he had been "serviced" by prostitutes as a young man.
Just the same, Bill Kenyon, deputy chairman of his campaign, insists that Williams wasn't hurt by Richards' attacks. "The net result of her negative commercials was that we gained five points in the polls," he asserts.
Richards contends that the commercials built up negative impressions of Williams. But interviews with voters show that even if they did do that, they also seem to have cost Richards an opportunity to establish a positive image for herself.
"I don't think Williams is as bright as Ann Richards," says ex-Californian Perdue. "But his campaign is more pointed. She hasn't spent enough time talking about the issues."
"Neither one suits my personal taste," says John Smith, a teacher from Port Lavaca, who is leaning to Williams. "But I think he will face up to more problems and make more decisions than she will."
Even Richards' own backers express disappointment with her performance.
"I think she's got a lot of good ideas, but I don't think she comes through as well as she could," says Dianne Abell, a legal secretary who came to the Georgetown courthouse rally. "It seems to be a dirty campaign."
But Richards strategists claim they can undo the mistakes of the early campaign by closing on a positive note. Going down the home stretch, Richards is promoting a proposal to reform the Texas insurance system, which she charges has produced exorbitant rates.
A new commercial tries to make that point and also show a warm and wholesome side of the candidate. It pictures her with an elderly man identified as Cecil Willis, who is said to be worried about rising health insurance rates.
"I've got a plan against price-fixing by the big insurance companies--lower insurance rates," Richard says in the ad.
"My plan is important to people like Cecil Willis. I should know--he's my daddy."