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The Bill White Buzz

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Who’d have ever imagined using the words “Bill White” and “buzz” in the same headline? The bald-headed Houston mayor, for all his undoubted ability to govern well and steadily, is about as scintillating as his John Doe-ish moniker. But such is the frantic desperation of Texas Democrats that there is actually something approaching excitement over the near-certainty that White will end his campaign for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unavailable U.S. Senate seat and mount a bid for governor. White’s candidacy became a near-certainty just yesterday, when Tom Schieffer wisely and gracefully ended his failed attempt to muster Democratic enthusiasm and challenge either Hutchison or Gov. Rick Perry next year. Schieffer, the Arlington businessman and former U.S. ambassador who was, by default, the Democrats’ leading gubernatorial candidate, had been dogged all year by nagging questions about his close ties to George W. Bush—and fatally hampered by his refusal to distance himself even a smidgen from the man he voted for every time he ran for office. No matter how much he talked about being a “lifelong Democrat,” Schieffer couldn’t raise a pulse among the suspicious Democratic grassroots—and he couldn’t scare up nearly enough cash to suggest that he’d have an icecicle’s chance in Hades of running a competitive campaign against either Hutchison or Gov. Rick Perry next year. But the timing of Schieffer’s withdrawal—and the way he went about it—finally gave Democrats something to cheer him for. Schieffer recognized that the gig was up with plenty of time for a stronger Democratic candidate to emerge and sweep to a convincing primary victory next March. And before he made his exit, he met with White—the only such Democrat who lives and breathes—and urged him to run. White’s been getting no shortage of urging from leading Dems, especially since Hutchison made it clear on Nov. 13 that she has no intention of stepping down from the Senate before next March—and also made it pretty plain, between the lines, that she’s likely to back away from challenging Perry altogether. That would leave her in the Senate until 2013, and leave White hanging—unless he jumps into the governor’s race. Which is where, given his political track record and persona, he should have been focused all along. White might be the only fellow in this state who could lose a public-speaking contest to Schieffer. But he has shown that he can make rain, raising more than $6 million so far, even with the limits imposed on Senate candidates that don’t apply to those running for statewide office. And his colorless personality hasn’t hampered his ability to be an extremely popular mayor in Texas’ biggest city. A few hours after Schieffer made his exit, White gave every indication that he was preparing to make the leap. In his characteristically slow, halting way, White said: “Since Friday a week ago, Texans from all backgrounds have asked me to consider running for governor of Texas. I agree [long, stiff pause] to consider running for that office, and will make a decision by Friday, Dec. 4. Before then, I invite citizens from all backgrounds in our state to give me advice and to weigh in on that decision.”  It wasn’t exactly soaring, Obamaesque political oratory. But while White’s dullness was on full display, his savvy was too. It would have looked crassly opportunistic to dance on Schieffer’s grave before the body was cold. And by waiting two weeks to make his formal announcement, White gave himself a chance to muster a little oomph as Democrats rally around and clamor for him to make the race. When you’re as bland as Bill White, you’ve got to manufacture that oomph any way you can. The fact that he seems to recognize this gives Dems their first tiny, faint spark of hope after a year of seeing every potential candidate with any giddy-up—including state Sens. Kirk Watson, Leticia Van de Putte and, most recently, Eliot Shapleigh—back away from the race. None of the Democrats who’ve said they will run—Hank Gilbert, Kinky Friedman, Felix Alvarado or Farouk Shami—has ever won a single election, whether for dog-catcher or governor. Gilbert does have mojo, and bold ideas to boot, but he’s got almost as little name-recognition as money. Now that there’s a serious candidate in the race, he’d be well-advised to aim a bit lower on the statewide totem pole. Assuming White does get in, it would be damn near impossible for the mayor to do anything but win the nomination resoundingly. How would he stack up against the flashy-but-increasingly unhinged governor? White vs. Perry would certainly offer Texas voters the starkest kind of choice: the choice between competence and charisma, between good governance and carnivalesque entertainment. You always have to bet, of course, on Texas voters choosing the interesting nutjob over the blandly solid public servant. But if they’re weary enough of Perry’s antics, White could conceivably make a convincing case that the governor’s sloppy governance, his casual corruption and his national reputation as a wild-eyed secessionist lunatic are harming Texas’ future. And with Perry having spent most of 2009 making himself look like the second coming of George Wallace to MSNBC followers, White could—again, conceivably—rustle up some serious bucks from progressive types outside of Texas. “Conceivably” is the operative word here. White has a snowball’s chance in Hell to become governor and not much more. But even that, given the wipeout that Democrats were bracing for next year, looks like a reason for the party faithful to celebrate. Tepidly, of course. Bill White-style.