By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006
WACO, Tex., Feb. 4 -- No one may be more loyal to President Bush than his press secretary, Scott McClellan. But there was McClellan cruising out of his hotel not far from the president's ranch Saturday en route to Austin to meet with a candidate running against the Bush-endorsed governor.
Of course, if McClellan didn't see his mama, she'd be mighty disappointed.
McClellan has been licking envelopes for his mother's political campaigns since he was a young Texas buck, but now Carole Keeton Strayhorn's decision to run for governor as an independent has put him in the unusual position of splitting with the president for whom he speaks. After her announcement last month, McClellan announced that he of course supports her -- but Bush is sticking with Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
If the situation has made things awkward for the president and the press secretary, neither is letting on. For the moment, the campaign is young. But if Strayhorn makes it a real race in the fall, there could come a moment when the governor wants help from his party's leader.
"I don't think it's awkward for anybody," Strayhorn said Saturday as she prepared to see her "baby boy" between campaign stops. "Everybody respects what the other one's doing. We've all got our jobs to do."
"In terms of the president and my mother, they were friends before this race, they're still friends today, and they'll be friends after the race, regardless of what happens," said McClellan, who hitched a ride here on Air Force One when the president came for a ranch respite. "She made the decision she made because she felt it was the right thing to do."
The civil war inside Texas Republican circles would be uncomfortable enough for Bush even without his aide's family involvement. Perry, who as lieutenant governor succeeded Bush after the 2000 presidential election, has engendered significant discontent within his party since then. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) toyed with challenging him in the GOP primary but bowed out. Strayhorn, the state comptroller, jumped into the primary before opting to run as an independent in November.
Strayhorn's case against Perry is, in essence, that he's not enough like Bush. "I'm a uniter, not a divider, and the governor has divided us, not united us," she said, adopting one of the president's favorite phrases. She cited Bush's example in working with Democrats. "When he was governor of the state, he reached across the aisle . . . and we got things done."
Perry's camp has dismissed Strayhorn as a political opportunist, saying her decision to run as an independent showed she is not a genuine conservative and proved she knew she would never win a GOP primary. "This race is not about and is not going to go to the chronic complainer or the shrillest critic," Perry said when he launched his campaign last month.
No independent has won the governorship in the Lone Star State since Sam Houston in 1859, and Strayhorn has an uphill battle. In a Rasmussen poll last month, Perry had the support of 40 percent, and Strayhorn had 21 percent.
"Right at the moment, she doesn't look like a huge threat to him," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "But she does change the dynamics in some interesting ways, . . ."
In a heavily Republican state, the Democrats do not appear to be a big factor. Chris Bell, a Democrat and former congressman, had 14 percent and Kinky Friedman, the iconic humorist also running as an independent, had 12 percent. Perry began the year with $11.5 million and Strayhorn with $8.1 million, while Bell, Friedman and former Democratic congressman Bob Gammage had less than $500,000 combined.
Asked to handicap the race Saturday, McClellan, 37, declined with a laugh. But he's seen this from the inside before. He was 4 years old when his mother won her first race for school board, and he managed three of her victorious statewide campaigns: two for railroad commissioner and one for comptroller.
"She's pretty much been in politics most of my life," he said. "She cares passionately about the state of Texas. If she's half as good a governor as she is mother and grandmother, Texas will be very lucky."
Strayhorn, 66, who runs under the slogan "One Tough Grandma," has no reluctance in speaking her mind. The first female mayor of Austin and the state's first female comptroller, she delights in taking on preconceptions. "I'm thrilled about it," she said about her campaign, which she says will "blow the barn doors" off conventional wisdom. "I have never been the darling of the insiders."
Nor is she backing away from another awkward relationship for the White House, her ties to Ben Barnes, a former Democratic lieutenant governor who advised Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign last year and said he helped Bush get into the Air National Guard to avoid service in Vietnam.
McClellan is the youngest of four sons. His brother, Mark, is head of Medicare and Medicaid. Twins Brad and Dudley are lawyers in Texas.
Brad McClellan, who is running their mother's campaign, said Scott can handle any flak that comes from the situation. "We don't worry about him because he was the baby of the family," he said. "Believe me, what he took from us, with three older brothers, he can handle about anything."