Kinky, a good ol' cigar-chomping, Jewish cowboy, might soon be running Texas

It may have started as a joke but now the state, appalled by its political leaders, is taking Friedman seriously

If that sounds like a wisecrack, Friedman has plenty more where it came from. His campaign is littered with Jewish jokes, politician jokes, gay marriage jokes ("they have every right to be just as miserable as the rest of us"), even jokes about the current governor, Rick Perry, and his famously perfect hairdo. "I've got a head of hair better than Rick Perry," Friedman boasts, to loud guffaws from his audiences, "it's just not in a place I can show you."

For the first few months of his campaign, conventional wisdom had it that Friedman's candidacy was itself a joke, a way of sticking it to Texas's luridly headline-worthy establishment without committing himself to much more than a stream of one-liners to entertain the crowds. Certainly, he can be counted on to show up to events in his trademark jeans, cowboy hat and leather waistcoat, puffing on a fat Cuban cigar as he goes through his well-rehearsed paces.

His team has produced a hilarious campaign cartoon making fun of Texas politicians as they speak broken Spanish on the campaign trail and invoke Jesus at every turn. One valuable fundraising asset is a Kinky talking doll. One of the 25 lines it spouts: "Friedman is just another word for nothing left to lose."

By now, though, it is clear the campaign is much more than a joke. Kinky has been earning himself both attention and warm praise in the Texas media for his witty articulation of a commonly felt disgust at the state's political leadership. He's running at a more than respectable 18 per cent in the latest opinion poll Ð with more than a year to go before election day.

Perhaps most significantly, the Texas establishment is floundering all around him. Tom DeLay, overlord of the state's congressional delegation, has just been charged with conspiracy and money-laundering. Public opinion is appalled at the governor and the legislature for relegating the Texas school system to 50th place among the 50 states.

Any political capital Governor Perry may have accumulated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when his state became a conduit for federal money for the flood of incoming evacuees and he put on a passable show of competent leadership, started to deplete as soon as Katrina's successor, Hurricane Rita, hit the Gulf coast. State officials encouraged two million coastal residents to take to the Texas highways simultaneously, resulting in 100-mile traffic jams, fuel shortages and general consternation.

The way Friedman and his campaign managers see it, if he can present himself as a genuine alternative to a disgusted electorate and mobilise at least some of the 75 per cent of Texas voters who didn't bother to show up for the last governor's election, he stands a real chance of winning. What he has revealed about his politics Ð which has not been much at this early stage - suggests he is a fiscal conservative with moderate to liberal social views. In other words, he has something to appeal across the spectrum.

Governor Perry has money and the backing of the national Republican Party from George Bush on down, but he is also struggling with low approval ratings and faces a nasty primary against the state comptroller, Carole Keaton Strayhorn. The presumed Democratic candidate for governor, Chris Bell, has been almost invisible. None of them will find it easy to make a case based on their experience. As Friedman wickedly puts it: "Politics is the only field of human endeavour where the more experience you have, the worse you get."

What Friedman is launching is a classic American populist campaign. At a time when the Bush presidency is hitting the rocks, there's probably no better state to try it than the spiritual home of George W and his entourage. Friedman's modest celebrity doesn't do any harm, either. Celebrity, after all, worked for Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who became governor of Minnesota in 1998, and for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator turned Governator of California.

Tellingly, Friedman's campaign manager, Dean Barkley, used to work for Jesse Ventura and knows a thing or two about insurgent campaigns Ð especially ones regarded by the political establishment as a joke. "We're going to revolutionise the world, one governor at a time," says Barkley, a rugby player in his spare time who enjoys the odd cigar himself.

Ventura, it must be said, was less than successful once he reached office, spending much of his time on extracurricular activities and flaming out at the end of a single term. Barkley said his big mistake was to wage war on the legislature, uniting the Republicans and Democrats against him. Already, Friedman has been noticeably gentle on the Texas legislature, pouring most of his scorn instead on the state leadership (with the help of a salty testicle joke involving the governor, lieutenant governor and house speaker).

When Friedman first thought about throwing his hat into the political ring, the famous Texas political columnist Molly Ivins Ð no mean humorist herself Ð responded: "Why the hell not?" That line is now an established campaign slogan alongside many others.

The road ahead is complicated, however, by Texas's deep resistance to independent candidates. Not only can Friedman not take part in the primaries next March. He actually has to convince tens of thousands of voters not to vote in the primaries and sign a petition supporting his candidacy in the November general election instead. "Save yourselves for Kinky!" is the watchword.

At a typical recent event outside a coffee shop in Wimberley, in the hill country not far from Austin, the Texas capital, Friedman was greeted more like a rock star than a politician. A jokey country band called the Pluckin' Idiots warmed up for him, and the crowd, arrayed on three sides of a courtyard, cheered his every line. Some were liberals, some conservatives. Soon they were all chanting: "Kinky for governor! Why the hell not?" Kinky himself deadpanned: "Bring me whatever you've got. I'll sign t-shirts, posters, bumper stickers É I'll sign anything except bad legislation."

Biography

Born Richard Friedman in 1944, to upper-middle class parents who moved to Texas when he was a boy

First came to fame as a country singer in the early 1970s. His band, the Texas Jewboys, turned out whimsical hits including "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and the raunchy feminist satire "Put Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed".

Switched to novel-writing in the 1980s, turning out titles including The Mile High Club and The Love Song of J Edgar Hoover, which featured a thinly veiled version of himself solving crimes from Texas to New York

A lifelong animal lover, he founded Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, saving more than 1,000 dogs from euthanasia

A recent collection of autobiographical essays is entitled: Texas Hold 'Em: How I Was Born In a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back a Horny Toad. In it he writes how "I made it a point in my adult life never to get married, never to have a home, and never to have a job."

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