FORT DAVIS -When you're in a tight political race in Texas, it doesn't hurt to pull out your gun. That's exactly what Chris Bell, the Democratic nominee for governor, did near here on Sunday, Sept. 10.
So far, seeing a candidate sighting down a pistol barrel hasn't caught on, though it might before long. In this case, Bell got himself dressed up in camouflage clothes and boots, flew in his campaign plane with some members of the media to Marfa, and then was driven north to the Sproul Ranch near this unincorporated town in the Davis Mountains.
Bell was trying to demonstrate that he knew how to handle a gun; he used to hunt when he was a TV reporter in Amarillo in the 1980s. But with the current groundswell over underfunding Texas parks, and with most Texas land privately owned, he also wanted to emphasize that as governor he'll do all he can to increase the number of places where Texans who don'own or lease ranches can hunt, fish, hike, camp and enjoy the outdoors.
On a beautiful late summer afternoon, in lush grass nurtured by uncommon amounts of recent rains, Bell tromped around in a field for the photo op. In the 90 minutes allotted for the hunt, and with the abundant water making it less necessary for doves to fly around looking for it, Bell only saw one bird close enough to shoot.
He threw down on the dove, and almost squeezed his trigger finger blue - but the gun didn't fire. His guide, Sproul Ranch co-owner Tony Timmons, waited a few seconds, and then bagged the bird himself.
Turned out Bell had forgotten to take his gun off safety.
At least one poll the same weekend showed Bell pulling within five percentage points of Republican Gov. Rick Perry. He was also ahead of Independents Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, whose preferred weapon is their mouth.
Part of Bell's recurrent message to voters is that there is no runoff: whoever gets the most votes Nov. 7 is governor for the next four years, even if they have less than a majority. Against that background, Bell hopes to convince those who want to unseat Perry that he is their best shot, so to speak.
Posing with a shotgun is a time-tested ritual of Texas politics -and perhaps something of a necessity for Democrats, suspected in some "good old boy" areas of East and West Texas of being liberal anti-hunting pantywaists.
Ann Richards hoisted a shotgun in 1990, and actually bagged a couple birds. And lo and behold, was elected governor over early favorite, West Texas oilman and Republican candidate Clayton Williams, who seemed to direct most of his final-days fire at his feet.
Annie got out the gun again each year she was governor. In 1994, perhaps prophetically, the birds didn't show up, So Richards wound up blasting into the air for the photographers.
That same year, Richards' Republican challenger, George W. Bush, went armed into the field, accompanied by the requisite gaggle of photographers and reporters, and indeed shot a bird. Oops! He came to find out the drove he'd bagged was actually a killdeer, which is on the protected-species list, and thus a no-no.
Bush notified game officials, and paid a $130 fine. But in a year when gun rights advocates were angry at Democrats both in Texas and nationally about efforts to control handguns, Bush wound up unseating Richards anyway.
Now the pundits are pondering what the hunting trip might forecast for Bell, particularly against an avid hunter like Perry, who has animal parts hanging on his wall. Is it a bad sign that Bell only had one shot and blew it?
Maybe. But, if you can gun down the wrong bird and still beat the incumbent governor, it may not be so bad after all.
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The newest Zogby Poll showed Perry had dropped to 30.7 percent, while Bell had improved to 25.3 percent. Friedman was at 22.4 percent, and Strayhorn at 11.1 percent.
Perry's camp dismisses the polls, charging they have faulty methodology.
Reach McNeely at email@example.com or (512) 458-2963.