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A Defining Moment

Bill White, the Democratic nominee for governor, watched Rick Perry make mincemeat of Kay Bailey Hutchison in the GOP primary by painting a devastating picture of her before she could introduce herself to prospective voters. How to avoid the same fate? By travelling incessantly, trying to make himself known everywhere in Texas. By dismissing snippy press releases as interesting only to Austin insiders and pundits. By running bio ads on TV. In other words, by working the problem.

Bill White, on the phone in Grand Prairie Mayor Charles England's office. Behind him, from left to right, are Rep. Kirk England, son of the mayor, Theresa Woodward, his chief of staff, and the mayor himself.

The news of the day — not a particularly well-kept secret even before the announcement — is that Grand Prairie Mayor Charles England, a Republican, is endorsing Democrat Bill White in the race for governor over incumbent Rick Perry.

It's Friday, April 30. England's son, Democratic state Rep. Kirk England, picks up White at the airport and fills him in on local color and news on the way to the first event. It's an Arbor Day celebration in front of a colorful crowd of public school students in a plaza next to City Hall. Next is a Rotary Club luncheon, a gathering of about 100 people — England the younger says most of them are Republicans. After that, White is shuttled back to City Hall, where he talks to an apparently voluntary gathering of city employees. He goes back to the community center, where the service club lunched for the official announcement of the mayor's endorsement. Then, some down time, a reception for supporters and a few donors, back to the airport and, finally, Houston.

White, the three-term mayor of Houston, has been traveling since the primary, trying to make himself known to voters everywhere else in Texas. And he's in a footrace with Perry to do it. The governor's campaign has started the same sort of needling that unnerved U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary, calling White a liberal trial lawyer and nagging him to release tax returns for the years he was Houston's chief executive, suggesting he's trying to hide "shady business dealings." They say he was easy on immigrants, running a sanctuary city. And they contend he left Houston in precarious financial shape.

In the primary, Perry tagged his opponent with the name "Kay Bailout Hutchison" to aid his attacks on her votes in favor of federal economic recovery funds. That was just a tickler in press releases for a while, until Perry spent millions on a commercial that repeated the moniker over and over. He was able to build her reputation as a high-spending creature of Washington before she was able to become known as the remedy for the incumbent.

White's not playing. He calls the race to define who he is between his campaign, and his opponent's a construct of Austin insiders and pundits.

He started a television campaign this week, with ads running initially in Houston and set to spread to other markets over the next few weeks, introducing him as a successful mayor and "man on the move." Perry responded with an ad on YouTube that pulled a smaller audience — it had been viewed only 1,180 times at last check. The idea there is to start messing with the Democrat's reputation in the punditocracy and, more importantly, to prompt some hesitation from potential supporters and donors to White's campaign.

It's early and nobody's paying much attention, White argues. The snippy press releases from the incumbent are catnip for political junkies and nothing more. But he's responding in his way. While he's ignoring Perry's calls for his income tax returns and discounting the idea that he's got to be the first to describe himself, he's also working the problem.

"If you just do name-calling against everybody who disagrees with you ... after 20 years, people wise up," he says. "I want people around the state to know me as the people who work with me know me ... to check the references just as you would for a job.

"What you see on the trail is that people are ready for a new governor," White says. "He's highly partisan, and I'm a problem-solver."

The commercials are part of it. The biggest spending sprint in this and other campaigns will come after Labor Day. So it's early to advertise, but doing it now serves three functions: defining White in his own terms; raising his name ID for an expected round of late spring polls, both internal and external; and showing supporters that his will be a serious campaign. "We'll be competitive financially," an aide says. And the first sign of that — true or false — comes in about two months, when candidates file campaign finance reports for the first six months of the year. If the campaign is right, the money spent now on the ads will also help raise money for those reports. And they're mindful of what happened to Hutchison: Perry's campaign ads on bailouts were too heavy and too late to counter. Starting now might offset what's likely to come later.

The retail politicking and traveling around the state is the norm for this part of the election season. He's also aiming at areas that haven't been fertile for Democrats in the last decade. White has been in the Panhandle, the South Plains, West Texas — those are deep red on your political map — and is talking in places where conservatives are much more common than liberals. White won the mayor's office in Houston with support from Republicans and independents, and he hopes to win the governor's office the same way.

Kirk England, who won office as a Republican and switched to the Democrats, says his politics didn't change when the labels did. And he thinks that might be true for some of his less political friends. "My 'love list' is 90 percent Republican," England says. What's a love list? That's his true-blue supporters, he says, and puts the number at about 3,000 people. It includes a lot of the people at the lunch. "My rotary is very conservative ... but they're looking for someone to run [against Perry]."

White's lunch talk starts with praise for local officials — he says "we ought to entrust more decisions to local people." He notes that Grand Prairie, like other cities, pays people to represent its interests in Austin, but he puts a new spin on it: "The city has to pay people to lobby just to keep people off their back." He tells them he won't get political (that's political in itself) and gets a laugh by saying, "I'm just here for a long job interview."

White talks about his experience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — a response that won laurels for his performance, and for Perry's. And he sounds vaguely Republican when talking about two things he learned as mayor, in that and other pinches. Number one: "Treat others as we would like to be treated in the same situation." Number two: Make them self-sufficient.

His biggest applause line ends a section of his speech on high school dropout rates, a key criticism of Perry's governance in each of White's stops. He talks about his son hurting his knee in a basketball game — the quiet of the crowd until he hobbled off the court, the ambulance standing by to take him in, the surgery that followed. He says a dropout should get the same sort of attention. "It's a bigger deal than that knee," he says.

He's got a line in there about high homeowner rates, but he doesn't dwell on it. He tells the audience, without directly referring to Perry, that he wants to establish "clean politics where it's not a partisan game ... not a friends-and-enemies list." He wants to run government "like a well-run customer service business." His talk is peppered with a couple of phrases that turn up over and over. "Do you know what I mean?" and "Isn't that right?"

Between appearances, the candidate answers reporters' questions and takes calls. Perry's campaign contends Houston was a "sanctuary city" while White was in charge (in fact, its policies were nearly identical to the state's under Perry). And he's in Grand Prairie while the topic of Arizona's new immigrant-policing law is in the news. He says police don't have time to enforce federal immigration laws and says Washington should do so. "We can't send police to the border," he says. "There won't be anyone to answer 9-1-1 calls."

Back at City Hall, White talks to a small group of city employees. Noting the Charles V. England Public Safety Training Center and the Ruthe Jackson Center, named for the mayor and a longtime City Council member: "In Houston, we need to be deceased to have a building named after us." And this: "What is it about American public life these days? [It's] the only place you'd see the chief executives thinking they could improve performance by maligning the workforce." And he talks about his challenge as a candidate, saying he won't win "if good people don't get informed and tell their friends. ... Get the word out."

The capper, though it precedes a reception ending the day, is the endorsement from Charles England, who's been mayor since 1992 and who is up for re-election this week without an opponent. He's got three more years in the bag. "We need a change in Austin," he tells a gaggle of reporters. "The house has been divided into red teams and blue teams. ... I think [White] is a very moderate politician, and that's what this state needs."

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2010 elections Bill White Griffin Perry Rick Perry