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Candidates for governor seek to define each other


CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — These are defining times in the Texas governor's race.

Republicans want you to think Wendy Davis is a liberal and unethical. Democrats want you to think Greg Abbott is an extremist who hates public schools.

Davis wants you to know she supports women's rights and public education. Abbott says he's for the Second Amendment and low taxes.

Marketing experts know people like to have their opinions confirmed. Republicans will believe fellow Republicans, and Democrats will believe fellow Democrats.

The battle between now and the election on Nov. 4 will be over voters who haven't formed an opinion, and the campaigns are expected to spend more than $80 million to sway these undecideds.

In this election, consultants have narrowed the swing voters to two large groups they feel can be persuaded: suburban mothers and Hispanics. Most of the themes and messages coming from the two campaigns will be aimed at them this year.

Since a Democrat has not won a statewide race since 1994, Abbott is the de facto front-runner for the governor's mansion unless he makes a major mistake. That's one reason Democrats started putting the pressure on early and seizing on perceived slip-ups such as appearing with shock-rocker Ted Nugent and suggesting that corruption in the Rio Grande Valley is like the "Third World."

Over the past week, Davis has criticized Abbott for equivocating on whether he would support a law allowing women to sue employers in state court for paying them lower wages based on their gender. Last year, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill, which Davis had authored. This gives her a chance to talk about women's rights without mentioning abortion, something that hurts her with Hispanics.

"As Attorney General, Greg Abbott took huge pay raises while he fought against equal pay for equal work," Davis said on Wednesday. "Equal pay for equal work is at the heart of making sure Texas continues to lead."

Abbott's campaign refused to clarify their candidate's position, knowing many conservative groups oppose the equal pay law because they fear more lawsuits as a result. Women can file lawsuits in the overloaded federal courts, but those cases can drag on for years and are more expensive than state courts.

Responding to Davis' attacks, the Abbott campaign complained that Davis has not kept her promises about letting voters know about her law clients and the ongoing work at her firm.

"She misled the public, yet again, when she promised to stop representing her public sector clients more than five months ago but continues to reap lucrative contracts," Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said. "Greg Abbott has put forward the most comprehensive ethics reform proposals in decades because he believes restoration of the public trust in government rests, in part, on transparency, accountability and breaking the cycle of public officials profiting from taxpayers."

If you think these themes — public education, conservatism, abortion, ethics, women's rights — are out there by accident, think again. The campaigns have tested these messages on both their core supporters and the undecideds to make sure they resonate.

The Abbott and Davis campaigns have come out swinging in the first two weeks after the party primaries and neither side shows signs of backing down. But as any boxer knows, every time you throw a punch, you open up your defenses.

Voters will be scoring the points over the next eight months as they decide for whom to cast their ballot. But at this stage of the game, the campaigns are looking to define their opponent in a way that will permanently hobble them.

 

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