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all photos by Jake Bernstein CAP ITOL OFFENSE Better De bate than Never BY DAVE MANN here’s the governor?” The lone debate of our bizarre fourperson race for the Texas governorship had been over for barely 20 minutes on October 6, and already incumbent Rick Perry had apparently fled the scene. Perry, like his three opponents, was scheduled to meet with the press following the hour-long debate. He was the only noshow. That left the assembled reporterssequestered in the high-ceilinged, glass-encased lobby of a gated-studio building in Dallaswith one question on their, minds. They kept shouting it at. Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black, who manned a position behind the podium in place of his boss. “‘Where’s Gov. Perry?” Black tried to ignore it. “Gov. Perry won the debate decisively tonight,” he began. “Where’s Gov. Perry? ‘Where’s Gov. Perry?” The reporters hurled the questions at him like rocks. Black, perhaps sensing the makings of a mob, finally responded. “The governor’s not coming:” he said. “The governor said what he had to say during the debate?’ That non-answer answer only stoked reporters’ ire. Black plowed ahead: “I’d like to introduce state Sen. Tommy Williams, who will speak on the governor’s behalf.” Williams, a rotund Republican from The Woodlands, stepped to the podium. He looked like he’d rather be having gum surgery. “Where’s Gov. Perry?” Williams began his statement: Perry won the debate and is the only candidate with a vision and a plan for Texas. Most reporters didn’t even bother to write it down. “Where’s Gov. Perry?” Williams finished quickly, and Black, a tight little grin fixed on his face, returned to the microphone. “‘Where’s Gov. Perry?” “He’s on his way back home;’ Black said. “Is the governor afraid to talk to the press?” At this, Black stopped grinning and narrowed his eyes at the questioner. “No, the governor’s not afraid to talk to the press.” He said the governor meets with reporters all the timein Austin and on campaign swings all over the state. This was news to most Capitol reporters. “He’ll be in a debate. He will be debating for the next 30 days with the people of Texas.” With that, Black walked out while aides distributed a press release from the Perry camp. It was a two-paragraph statement, not from Perry, but rather from Black, providing further description of Perry’s “decisive victory?’ Reporters shook their heads. A consultant with the Kinky Friedman campaign standing nearby observed, “I guess that’s why 65 percent don’t like him.” There’s a fine art to winning re-election when at least 60 percent of the electorate plans to vote against you. It helps enormously, of course, to have the anti-Perry vote spread among Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. Perry’s base will likely deliver him no less than 35 percent on November 7. That gives the incumbent about a 10point lead with a month to go, according to most polls. To win, Perry simply needs to run out the clock. The entire night’s events seemed designed to shield the governor from as much public exposure as possible. That was the political strategy behind ducking the statewide mediasidestep a chance to put his boot in his mouth. Similar political thinking guided Perry’s rejection of at least five other invitations to debate his opponents. The one debate he did agree to was scheduled on a Friday night during high school football season and the night before the University of Texas-Oklahoma showdown across town in the Cotton Bowl. The four candidates debated in a closedoff studio without an audience.. In fact, the only members of the public or press who actually saw the governor in the flesh were the four reporters asking and moderating the questions. To make matters worse, the company that hosted the debate, Belo Corp.the Dallas-based C 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 20, 2006