AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The two front-runners in the race for Texas governor have both announced their candidacies, and they share one common strategy: painting the other as a political extremist.
Republican Greg Abbott says Democrat Wendy Davis will push an extreme liberal agenda. Davis counters that Abbott and his tea party allies will bring Washington-style partisanship and austerity to Texas. If the first day of the Davis campaign is any example, there will be plenty of mudslinging in the weeks and months ahead.
One person's political extremist, of course, is another's defender of American values. That is certainly the case with the core political supporters that both Davis, a Fort Worth state senator, and Abbott, the Texas attorney general, need to turn out on election day. But in a high turnout election, the middle ground decides the race, presenting both candidates the challenge of motivating their base while not alienating persuadable voters.
The effective way to do that, if sometimes distasteful, is to attack your opponent.
In her announcement speech, Davis didn't mention Abbott by name, but accused the current leadership in Austin, all of whom are Republican, of representing special, moneyed interests and "turning a deaf ear" to middle and low-income families.
"State leaders in power keep forcing people to opposite corners to prepare for a fight instead of coming together to get things done," she said. "Texans deserve better than failed leaders who dole out favors to friends and cronies behind closed doors. Texas has waited too long for a governor who knows that quid pro quo shouldn't be the status quo."
Hours before Davis even had a chance to speak those words Abbott was calling her "an extremist" who will impose "the kind of spending and regulation that's reckless for government."
The next day, Abbott's campaign used Davis' candidacy to raise money.
"Senator Wendy Davis has entered the ring, fighting for late-term abortion on demand," the text read. "The Wendy Davis Agenda will bring California values to our state if we don't stop her."
Abortion rights will be a key issue in the campaign. Her filibuster of a law that limits when, where and how a woman may obtain an abortion is what brought Davis to statewide and national attention. She remains opposed to the provision that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, a stage that experts do not define as late term.
Groups that support abortion rights, including Planned Parenthood, were quick to endorse Davis, even if she did not discuss women's health care in her announcement speech. These groups will work to rally their supporters — the critical white female vote — to side with Davis.
Abbott told reporters in January that he opposes abortions in all circumstances, except when the health of the mother is in danger. He has said he would support a ban on abortions, even in cases of rape and incest, a position abortion rights proponents consider unacceptable.
Texas Right to Life began airing ads over the weekend attacking Davis. Anti-abortion groups across the state have an enormous influence in Republican primaries.
Davis will work hard to avoid letting Abbott define her as a single-issue candidate. She will use her rags-to-riches personal story to talk about the importance of public schools, good health care for all and aid to low-income college students, issues that play well with her progressive and multi-cultural base.
Abbott has worked to define himself as the protector of the Texas economy and the Republican conservatism that has dominated state politics for 20 years. He proudly flies the tea party's "Come and Take It" flag and features the Bible and firearms in his political ads. Fiscal restraint and the Second Amendment are key issues for conservatives.
What counts as extreme in one state is sometimes considered normal in another, and even in Texas, the same policy position is seen differently whether a voter lives in Longview or Austin. But that won't keep both campaigns from throwing a lot of labels around, hoping to define their opponent in the worst possible terms.
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Chris Tomlinson is the AP's supervisory correspondent in Austin, responsible for state government and political reporting.