University of Virginia political savant Larry Sabato offers a good analysis of the governor’s race on his Crystal Ball newsletter on the Web:

“A recent trip to Texas convinced the Crystal Ball that if the opposition to Gov. Rick Perry wasn’t split, it might actually prevail. Few voters we encountered had a good word for Perry, with most saying he had overstayed his welcome–he’s been governor since 2000. But these voters were all over the map when asked their preference for Perry’s successor, and that’s the salvation for Perry. Public and private polls show that Perry has perhaps 40 percent support, a miserable showing for an incumbent governor. But his three foes, Democrat Chris Bell and Independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman all hover just below 20 percent. Combined they get 60 percent, so were there a single Perry opponent named Kinky Carole Bell (sounds like a porn star, doesn’t it?), he or she might win. But there isn’t, and Perry is very lucky.”

Sabato reflects the conventional wisdom about the race. From the moment that Strayhorn and Friedman qualified to be on the ballot as independents, the question has been whether one of Perry’s opponents could break out of the pack and become the magnet for the anti-Perry vote. So far, the answer has been No, and nothing that occurred over the summer has given any indication that it will change.

Two things could cause Perry problems. One is that his and President Bush’s low approval ratings might depress the Republican turnout in Texas. Yes, but…Bush’s approval rating is above 50 percent in Texas. Democratic morale here is even lower than Republicans’, which is understandable when you look at their embarrassing lineup for downballot offices. Furthermore, Democrats lag behind Republicans, nationally and in Texas, in their ability to turn out their voters. The other potential pitfall for Perry is the feeling that Sabato identified: that he has overstayed his welcome, that ten years of Rick Perry is too many. To venture back into ancient history, Perry’s situation is reminiscent of the 1976 Democratic primary race for governor between six-year incumbent Dolph Briscoe and attorney general John Hill. Briscoe had been a rural oriented governor in an increasingly urban state, and the voters were tired of him. The more he appeared on television, the more he reminded people of why they were tired of him. His presence on TV ended up costing him votes, and Hill won the primary. If that were to happen to Perry, and he were to drop below 35%, he might be vulnerable.

Does anybody remember that early poll showing Strayhorn with 31% of the vote to Perry’s 41%? Everything has gone straight downhill for the state comptroller since then, until the most recent poll showed her with less than 10% of the vote. I don’t believe that number for a minute, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that she’s running fourth, in the mid-to-upper teens. (Credible polls have been hard to come by this year, and the campaigns are not releasing their numbers, except that Bell curiously touted a Zogby poll that had him “only” 11+ points behind Perry.) Strayhorn’s fundamental problem remains what it has always been, that she alone of the four candidates has no natural constituency. Just four years ago she amassed more votes than anyone on the Republican ticket, but she alienated some of that support by her constant criticism of Perry, which didn’t sit well with many Republicans. Bell has what’s left of the Democrats, and Kinky has the cynical, the disillusioned, and the fed up. The Strayhorn folks see it differently. They say that the makeup of the electorate will be 54% women, of whom 60% will vote for Strayhorn. If they are correct, they have 32% of the total vote without counting any male support, but their assumptions seem wildly optimistic to me. It seems highly unlikely that Perry, Bell, and Friedman together will be limited to 40% of the female vote.

Strayhorn’s biggest asset is that she is the only one of Perry’s challengers who has enough money (at least $8 million) to run a full-fledged media campaign for the nine-week sprint to November 7. The problem is that her campaign has been directionless. The summer was wasted on juvenile stunts such as trying to get on the ballot as “Grandma.” She took punch after punch from Perry over taking extravagant contributions from Ryan & Co., which represents taxpayers seeking refunds from her office. You’d think it would be impossible for anyone to lose the ethical high ground to Perry, but her campaign did it. (The summer wasn’t entirely wasted, as Strayhorn spent a lot of time wooing anti-megahighway and anti-tollway groups.) Some of this is inside baseball that is of intense interest only in Austin, but I do think that Strayhorn has a very short time frame in which to establish that she is a credible candidate with a realistic chance to beat Perry.

Bell needs a Strayhorn collapse and an infusion of cash from her disappointed financial backers. Even then, I don’t think he has a prayer. One of the problems for Democrats is that they depend heavily on minority turnout, but the Voting Rights Act ensures that most minority politicians have seats that are safe from general election challenges. In the absence of hot local races, the incentive to vote just isn’t there. There are scattered races of importance in minority areas–state Senate races in El Paso and San Antonio, races for sheriff and county judge in Corpus Christi–but not enough to make a difference for Bell. Unlike Strayhorn and Friedman, Democrat Bell won’t get many Republican votes. No Republicans plus few Democrats equals no chance.

Friedman is such a wild card that it is hard to know where he will end up. Who would have thought he would have 20% of the vote at this stage of the race? Most political pros think he will collapse in the end game (presumably to Strayhorn’s benefit), as anti-Perry voters recognize that he has no chance to win. But it is equally likely that these voters will find that a vote for Friedman is the best way to register their disgust at another Perry victory.