The race for governor of Texas has been spiced up this year by two colorful and outspoken candidates, one a tough-talking grandmother and the other a self-described Jewish cowboy. But Governor Rick Perry has been using his hard stance on border security as an issue to maintain a comfortable lead.
The two top concerns of voters in Texas, according to a recent poll, are the war in Iraq and immigration. The state governor cannot do much about Iraq, but he can talk tough on the border.
The Rio Grande River, which separates Texas from Mexico, accounts for about half of the 3000-kilometer border between the United States and Mexico, and crime has been a particular problem in the border region.
In a recent televised debate with his three main challengers, Governor Perry highlighted the border law enforcement programs he initiated.
"We developed a plan, 'Operation Linebacker-Operation Rio Grande,' which has done a great job at stopping that illegal activity,” said Governor Perry. “We will do everything we need to do and can do in this state until Washington understands that you cannot have national security and you cannot have an immigration program until you have border security."
Governor Perry's tough rhetoric is somewhat at odds with the policy of the man he replaced as Texas governor, President Bush.
The president favors what has become known as comprehensive immigration reform; that is, tougher enforcement of immigration laws coupled with a guest-worker program and a path towards citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already in the country.
That is the same approach favored by Perry's Democratic opponent, Chris Bell, who also wants to punish those who hire illegal workers.
"I want to crack down on employers,” said Mr. Bell. “I think if we had not been turning and looking the other way for years and allowing employers to hire illegal aliens we probably would not be having this debate."
In years past, the contest over the governor's mansion would have been a clear-cut race between Bell and Perry, but Bell has been overshadowed by two independent candidates, both of whom are colorful characters.
One is tough-talking Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton-Strayhorn, who has challenged Governor Perry on such issues as balancing the state budget. She declined to run in the Republican primary against Perry, running as an independent instead. She has attempted a run to the right of Perry on the border issue.
"I want the Texas Rangers to be in charge and that will stop the illegal immigration and then we will implement a fair, legal immigration program," she said.
The idea of Texans being outspoken and free of spirit is the core appeal of independent candidate Richard "Kinky" Friedman, who is rarely seen without his black cowboy hat and a large cigar.
Friedman started capitalizing on his combined Jewish and Texas heritage back in the 1970's as a singer-songwriter, penning such songs as "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore." He later turned to writing humor-filled mystery novels. He announced his candidacy last year with slogans like "How hard could it be?"
Kinky Friedman's approach to immigration involves sending 10,000 National Guard troops to the border.
"There are crime syndicates, we are not talking about an illegal running through a field here,” he said. “We are talking about dead bodies in the back of trucks and people trafficking weapons, people, and drugs. Whatever it takes, let us stop it."
Friedman also draws on Texas history, referring to the 1836 battle of the Alamo in which the Mexican army massacred Texas rebels led by Colonel William Travis.
"Colonel Travis drew a line in the sand and the men who crossed it at the Alamo knew they were going to die,” he added. “There is another line called the border. Let us honor and protect it and respect it."
Such talk has little appeal to Hispanic voters in Texas. They tend to see border enforcement proposals as aimed at people who share their culture and language.
Friedman has also offended blacks, in one case by suggesting that all the worthwhile people among the mostly black evacuees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina last year had already returned home, leaving Texas with what he described as "the crackheads and the thugs." After that statement, Friedman fell from second to fourth place in some polls.
Despite of, or maybe because of, his rejection of political correctness, Friedman still counts on a lot of support from Texas liberals, especially in the state capital of Austin.
An irritated Chris Bell has tried to draw Democrats back by arguing that the independent Friedman is really a conservative. This is how he made the point during the recent debate.
"I am glad to have this opportunity tonight to stand here as the Democratic nominee with my three Republican opponents," said Mr. Bell.
Kinky Friedman's missteps have turned some voters away, but many of his supporters remain loyal, partly because they do not really expect him to win. They just want to send the message that they are tired of politics as usual and would like to see a change.
Friedman is running at around 14 percent favorability in public-opinion polls, but even if all those votes went to Bell, the polls indicate Rick Perry would still win by a small margin.