AUSTIN -- "Not as Nasty as They Wanna Be," was the title of the Texas Society of Professional Journalists' 13th annual Gridiron show satirizing Lone Star politicians Saturday night. Though the title might have been accurate, one skit after another took advantage of the nasty material provided over the past year by gubernatorial candidates Ann Richards and Clayton Williams, neither of whom was on hand to, in Williams's infamous words, "sit back, relax and enjoy it."
The show, which resembled one big tongue-in-cheek negative ad, tried to be impartially vicious, and the raucous audience at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin responded in kind, saving its most thunderous applause for a rendition of "Did You Ever Know That You're My Hero?" with the words revised to "Did You Ever Know That You're Both Weirdos?"
The Williams character had ears the size of Dumbo the elephant's. He tried to explain away his remarks about enjoying rape if it couldn't be avoided and the pleasures of being "serviced" by Mexican prostitutes by claiming, in the manner of The Liar character on "Saturday Night Live," that his words were misheard. In fact, so the Williams character contended, what he said was that one should sit back, relax and enjoy crepes, not rape, and that he used to cross the border to enjoy the "tennis service" of a "fine little Nuevo Laredo spitfire."
To the melody of the old Patsy Cline hit "Stand By Your Man," recently revived by new wave Texas country singer Lyle Lovett, a female Williams supporter sang:
He's not a Yankee . . . so forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand
He may have no class
He's from West Texas (emphasis on second syllable)
And, after all, he's just a man.
The portrayal of Richards seemed more devastating -- less of a caricature than a sharp upbraiding. While going after her hairdo and other easy targets, the Richards skits struck hardest on the theme that she is not only letting the campaign slip away from her but also losing her identity. The closing scene had the voice of the late John Henry Faulk, the Austin humorist who devoted his life to protection of the First Amendment, lecturing Richards for supporting measures banning flag-burning so that she could not be attacked as a wimp like Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis was here in 1988.
Saturday night marked the nadir of the Richards campaign. Between acts of the Gridiron show, the lobby was abuzz with news of a new Houston Chronicle poll showing Richards, the state treasurer, trailing Williams, the west Texas millionaire oilman, by 15 points -- 48 to 33 percent. The numbers pointed to a well-rounded trouncing in November unless something drastic happens.
The poll showed Williams leading in every section of the state except the Austin area. He was favored among independent voters 53 to 30 percent, and even led among women, 42 to 40 percent. Half the respondents held a negative opinion of Richards, a stunning increase from her 31 percent negative rating nine months ago. Of those who disliked her, the most common complaint was that she was running a dirty campaign.
The poll, conducted Sept. 5-12 by the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy, also showed Williams doing better than most Texas Republicans among Hispanics, picking up 32 percent of that vote to Richards's 45 percent, with 23 percent undecided -- the largest undecided group in the state. Williams, who speaks Spanish, started running Spanish-language ads in south Texas two weeks ago.
At an early juncture it seemed possible that the Texas race would evolve into a major referendum on women's issues, and when Williams made his remarks about rape and soliciting sex, the possibilities of that line of attack by Richards were promising. But now she not only trails among women but appears to have lost whatever momentum Williams's mistakes provided her. Only 8 percent of those polled, for instance, said they considered Williams too much of a male chauvinist.
According to the poll, Richards could do no better than split the vote with Williams among abortion rights supporters. For voters who said abortion was the most important issue in the race, Williams, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, attracted 54 percent, while Richards, who is a staunch abortion rights supporter, picked up only 27 percent.
Coincidental with the Houston Chronicle poll came a cover story in Texas Monthly magazine entitled "Dirty Dancing: Stepping Out with Ann and Claytie Across Texas -- and Each Other." Much like the Gridiron show, the story lacerated both candidates, but the toughest material was directed toward Richards. The article showed a campaign in disarray.
"Every word of it is on the money, unfortunately," said a distraught Richards insider after reading the magazine article and hearing about the poll but before watching the Gridiron show. "It really captures the way it is."