HOUSTON -- "Don't elect that son-of-a-Bush," warn bumper stickers for tart-talking Texas Gov. Ann W. Richards.
But Texas voters may be about to spurn that advice -- and their good ol' gal governor -- in the grandest grudge match of this election year.
Ms. Richards, one of the Democratic Party's shining stars, is in serious trouble in her re-election fight against George W. Bush, the eldest son of the former president. The latest public poll shows Mr. Bush 3 percentage points ahead.
In fact, with only two weeks left in the '94 campaign, Republicans have a good chance to win the governorships of the nation's four most populous states -- California, New York, Texas and Florida (where another Bush son, Jeb, is running).
More than political bragging rights are at stake. A big-state Republican sweep could make it that much tougher for President Clinton to gain re-election in 1996, as Mr. Bush, a key political adviser to his father in 1992, happily points out.
His strategy for the closing days of the race here, Mr. Bush said in an interview, will be to "highlight Bill Clinton and the need to have a governor in Texas in 1996 who understands that Clinton has not been good for Texas and has not been good for America."
Mr. Bush denies that his candidacy is about avenging his father's defeat. But he acknowledges "the irony" that his campaign is in some ways a rerun of the 1992 presidential race -- and that his opponent is someone who zoomed to national prominence by bashing his father.
Ms. Richards' syrupy Texas accent and silvery hairdo gained attention at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she unloaded a sassy, sneering attack on the then-vice president: "Poor George, he can't help it," went her most memorable line. "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Two years later, she was elected governor.
During her term, the state's economy has rebounded and the state budget is now in surplus, thanks in part to the lottery she pushed. School test scores are up and crime is down, but the governor is caught in vicious political cross-currents.
She's a veteran officeholder in an anti-government year, a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state. And she has close ties to Mr. Clinton in a state where the president is searingly unpopular.
Although most Texans think she's done a good job, her folksy style has not worn all that well with the public, one of her advisers says privately, which has led her to run a low-key campaign.
Ms. Richards almost sounds defensive when she says, as she did in her only face-to-face debate with Mr. Bush, on Friday in Dallas, that she's "not satisfied" with the progress Texas has made under her leadership and that "not enough" has been done to reduce crime and improve public education.
Like other endangered Democrats around the country, she has increasingly resorted to personal attacks, which Mr. Bush insists are backfiring.
"When she referred to me as a jerk, all of a sudden it began to change people's perceptions of both of us," he says.
In her TV ads, Ms. Richards, 61, is challenging Mr. Bush's main selling point, his business experience, by claiming his "business ventures" have lost a total of $371 million since 1985. Although the ads don't say it, the $371 million figure refers mainly to losses reported by companies in which Mr. Bush served on the board of directors, not as an executive.
Richards aides say the ads are hurting Mr. Bush, but interviews with Texans suggest that his celebrity as a part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team may be insulating him from more serious harm.
"He couldn't stay in business if he's that bad. It doesn't ring true," says Bill Anderson of Niederland, Texas, a postal service worker who voted for Ms. Richards in 1990 but is backing Mr. Bush this time.
A new Richards commercial questions Mr. Bush's sale of $875,000 worth of Harken Energy Co. stock in 1990, just weeks before the company reported large losses and the value of the stock plunged. At the time, Mr. Bush was a member of Harken's board of directors.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates insider trading activities, investigated the transaction but took no action. Mr. Bush denies any wrongdoing.
Like father, like son
From his lean, handsome looks to the path he has chosen through life, Mr. Bush, 48, bears an almost eerie resemblance to his father.
Both attended prep school at Andover, college at Yale, became military pilots and used family contacts to get started in the oil business in Midland, Texas, where old-timers refer to George W. as "Little Georgie" (he is not a junior, having been given only one of his father's two middle names).
As a candidate, Mr. Bush has adopted his father's moderate conservative politics. Though he sometimes shows flashes of his father's verbal awkwardness, he has become a surprisingly adept campaigner (though brother Jeb, in Florida, is still regarded as the better politician).
The most recent statewide poll showed Mr. Bush with a 47 percent-to-44 percent lead, with 9 percent undecided, and most politicians here expect the race to go down to the wire.
A gaffe-free performance in last weekend's TV debate may have helped Mr. Bush, but Ms. Richards also may have benefited from her quick action in getting disaster aid from the Clinton administration after severe flooding struck much of east Texas last week.
The governor's pollster, Harrison Hickman, says the race will come down to whether Ms. Richards' strongest supporters, "blacks, browns and girls," can be persuaded to turn out in heavy enough numbers on Election Day. "If they don't," he adds, Mr. Bush "has a real shot."
But to hear Mr. Bush talk, the contest is all but over.
"There's a lot of people in this state who, a year ago, were quick to say, 'This guy doesn't have anything going for him. All he is is George Bush's son,' and wrote me off. . . . Even my friends. I could see it in their eyes," he says.
About a month ago, he says, he became convinced that he would win. "I could feel a momentum shift."
While the Bush family connection has clearly helped, the former president has kept a low profile in the race. He appeared at two fund-raising events, which raised more than $3 million, but left most of the campaigning to his wife, Barbara, who remains the most popular member of the family.
Both of the candidates for governor are stepping gingerly around the personal overtones of the campaign, which has all the elements of a classic political blood feud.
Mr. Bush is careful to say that he bears no personal ill will toward Ms. Richards, and the governor recently went so far as to refer to former President Bush as a beloved figure who deserves the respect he has earned.
"I don't remember her saying that on Election Day of 1992 -- nor at the convention," responds his namesake, with a thin-lipped half-smile.