US mid-term elections: Bush boy has good ol' girl from Texas in his sights: Successes may not help the Lone Star state governor, writes Rupert Cornwell in Pasadena

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It is an arrival a diva would envy. She emerges from the car in a white silk suit. Scarlet lipstick matches her bright red glasses. Her hands are adorned with thick gold rings, a gold-and-diamond Lone Star brooch gleams on her lapel. The teeth are perfect, even and pearly white. But best of all is the hair, an awe-inspiring construction of strands whipped like candyfloss into a bouffant that - reliable witnesses report - remains undisturbed even when a helicopter takes off a dozen yards away.

Ann Richards, Democratic Governor of Texas and one of the great ladies of American politics, is on the campaign trail. The Texas economy is booming, its budget is in surplus, educational standards are rising, crime is falling and the state is building new prisons like there's no tomorrow.

In any other time, against any other opponent, she'd be a shoo-in on 8 November. Not this time, however. Everywhere it is a tough year for Democrats but a great one for novices. Her particular misfortune is to be running against a novice with a great pedigree: George Bush, son of the former president. Mr Bush is level with her in the polls, maybe a whisker ahead. And, at a rally at the local branch of the chemical and oil workers union here in the heart of Houston's sprawling refinery district, the frustration shows.

She starts with a joke, a hilarious tale embracing a small-town barber's shop, a holiday in Italy, Alitalia airlines and the Pope. Then she gets to the serious part. 'Frankly,' she tells her adoring audience, 'this really hacks me off. I don't think any governor in the US has as good a record as I have.' But in 1994, even film- star appeal, the fastest tongue in the West and a 62 per cent approval rating are no guarantee of victory. All the bons mots in the world cannot conceal the fact that the political ground is shifting beneath her feet.

Ms Richards may be as tough as they come on welfare, taxes and crime. But inexorably, her state is turning Republican, part of a broader trend across the South that is transforming American politics. Despite competition from Ross Perot on his home turf, Bush senior carried Texas in 1992. The state has two Republican Senators, and come 9 November possibly a Republican majority in its congressional delegation.

Then there is the Clinton factor. In 1992 she was a prime ally of a President who today is more heartily disliked here perhaps than anywhere.

And, finally, there is history. Not for two decades has a Texas governor lasted more than a single term. Ms Richards, 61, in state politics for a quarter of a century, may be the most popular since John Connally. But she only squeaked to victory in 1990, largely because good ol' boy millionaire Clayton Williams sacrificed the womens' vote with an ill-advised likening of bad weather to rape. In both cases, he suggested, 'if it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it'.

The studiously polite George Jr makes no such slips. His is the archetypal conservative campaign, where not a step is unchoreographed, built on slick ads and conducted at as safe a distance as possible from troublesome reporters. George is his father's boy, with the same lopsided smile and the immortal Bush syntax, where verbs become nouns and subjects disappear: 'Knew what I was getting into in this race. Feel great though.'

But his secret weapon is his mother, Barbara Bush, who makes no pretence of being a Texan, and is even more popular here than her husband. And she has never forgiven Ms Richards for the attack on her husband at the 1988 Democratic convention, when she mocked Bush senior for his lack of a Texan accent before delivering her immortal put down, 'Poor George. He can't help it, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.'

Ms Richards' remarks about 'the Bush boy' drip with similar condescension.

'A well intentioned, very nice young man who wants to be governor,' she called him this week, at the very moment she launched some blistering television ads alleging her opponent's much-vaunted business expertise in fact amounted to failure verging on fraud.

But Ms Richards understands the treacherous chemistry of the race. Questions about Mrs Bush's stumping for her son are deflected with uncharacteristic caution: 'I'm a mother. I'd do the same thing if my son were running for office.' The Governor knows full well she is not the only silvery-haired grandmother act in town.

To win, she must separate what she concedes is 'one of the most loved and respected names in Texas' from the candidate who, she says, lacks the experience for the job. And she must also do what she does best: play the Good Ol' Girl turned Statehouse Queen.

This is the candidate who arrives in an east Texas cow-town for its annual Bean Dinner after a day in which she has travelled 1,200 miles. The hairdo of course has survived without a strand out of place, but she tells her audience in a drawl as wide as the Texas prairie: 'I feel rode hard and put up wet.' Connecticut-raised, Yale-educated George Jr would be laughed off the ranch for a remark like that. With Ms Richards, it brings the house down.

And so it goes: beams, hugs, and 'y'alls' to everyone in sight. On the rostrum she is proud, racy, faintly flirtatious. But by the time her 25-minute speech is over, she is positively begging, 'I need your help, call up everyone, even people you haven't spoken to for four years, get them to vote.' In a corner they are selling T-shirts emblazoned 'Another Man for Governor Ann'. This time Ms Richards, who would love the intended pun, is going to need all the men she can get.

(Photograph omitted)