The November outlook for Democratic candidates may be bleak, but New York Times reporter James McKinley Jr. shook his pom-poms for Bill White, former mayor of Houston and a Democratic candidate for governor of Texas, against "rightwing politician" Gov. Rick Perry, in Sunday's label-soaked "Texas Democrat Is Striving to Make His Name Known."
On the same day Newsweek magazine anointed Gov. Rick Perry on its cover as a conservative icon, his Democratic opponent, Bill White, was slogging through small-scale campaign stops here in a Republican stronghold, needling the governor, saying he paid more attention to his career than to bread-and-butter issues like schools.
The match-up between Mr. Perry and Mr. White this fall promises not only to test the depth of the conservative backlash against President Obama, but also to shed light on just how Republican the state has become and whether the slim signs of a Democratic resurgence in the 2008 election were chimerical.
Conventional wisdom holds that this is a bad year to run as a Democrat in a state like Texas. Since the mid-1990s, Republican candidates have started off with a 10-point advantage just for being Republican. What's more, most political scientists and strategists say the pendulum is swinging back against the Democrats after Mr. Obama's victory in 2008.
The backlash among staunch conservatives, who are angry about the bailout of banks and deficit spending to create jobs, has given rightwing politicians like Mr. Perry a wind at their backs. Indeed, Mr. Perry has actively courted disaffected voters angry with Washington, appearing with Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and building Mr. Perry's national profile.
McKinley saw hope for the Democrats, given that even "some moderate Republicans" feel Gov. Perry "has moved too far to the right." (Funny how the liberal press always sees the G.O.P. as on the verge of cracking up, even when prospects seem pretty bright.)
And there is a feeling among some moderate Republicans and independents that Mr. Perry has moved too far to the right. Mr. Perry alienated some middle-of-the-road voters by expressing sympathy for secessionists last year; others fell out with him over his support of religious conservatives on the state school board.
Mr. White has deftly identified those positions as chinks in Mr. Perry's armor, and he hits those notes often on the campaign trail. "Perry is a career politician who uses wedge issues and name-calling and ideology -- he's a populist in the old George Wallace sense," Mr. White said. "I appeal to people's common sense and decency and the deep reality that America's principal challenge in a competitive global economy is to prepare Americans to compete for good jobs."
Mr. Perry went to Texas A&M and became an Air Force pilot. Mr. White went to Harvard before becoming a lawyer and a successful businessman. Mr. Perry affects a boisterous, backslapping, cowboy-style bonhomie and favors grand rhetorical statements delivered in a ranch-hand's twang. Mr. White often speaks in a low monotone, but he has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, from oil drilling techniques to the history of the Bible.
Some Republicans are giving Mr. White a look.
Some former Republicans who left the party over differences with the socially conservative wing are also gravitating toward Mr. White. Robert Volkmann, 62, said Mr. Perry's decision to appoint a religious conservative as the head of the state school board was the last straw for him. "That lead me to realize the Republican Party is not fit to govern in the state of Texas," he said as he listened to Mr. White in Odessa.
McKinley is a fan of "conservative" labels; a recent story on the fight over Texas school textbooks was also soaked with them.