THE STARK WHITE BUNGALOW BENEATH THE OVERABUNDANT FOLIAGE is a monument to small-town aspirations. We are deep in East Texas, down a forgotten side road; a shaky sign tells us we have arrived at the Adline Study Club, where retired black schoolteachers teach etiquette. At the moment, however, the building has been borrowed for a different cause—Garry Mauro’s thankless, peripheral, almost irrelevant bid for governor. Elsewhere, the George W. Bush reelection locomotive screams along at rail-screeching speeds; here Mauro attempts to generate some creaky momentum of his own. It’s slow going: So far there are only eight people to shake hands with on this weekday morning. Ten more straggle in as Mauro speaks, but that still leaves about half the metal folding chairs empty.

If the fifty-year-old candidate is frustrated by the sparse turnout, he gives no sign. “Think about this!” he roars. “We built a $185 million capitol building, but we can’t spend $100 million on new schools!” Judging from the animated questions that follow, he has successfully engaged the small assembly. But the intimidating reality of the situation is driven home when a Texas Poll is released in mid-June: It shows Bush smearing Mauro, 70 percent to 17. “Quite frankly, we’ve never seen anything like what’s happening in this race,” says poll director Ty Meighan. “The governor is just so popular.”

Mauro immediately attacked the validity of the Texas Poll, issuing a statement that called it “laughable.” A Democratic poll, he said, showed him trailing by only 35 points, not 53. Such are his silver linings these days. “We feel like we are right on target,” Mauro tells me. “You don’t run against an incumbent governor whose father was president and expect to be ahead this far out.” Political upsets have been known to happen. Truman did defeat Dewey. Bush himself unseated Ann Richards, one of the most popular governors in Texas history. But Mauro over Bush boggles the mind. The obvious question is not whether Mauro can win, but why is he running at all? What is driving him to face the almost certain humiliation that awaits him in November?

TO UNDERSTAND ANYTHING ABOUT MAURO, it’s necessary to appreciate how far he has come. The populist themes he favors (standing up for the little guy against HMOs) are straight out of his own background: After emigrating from Sicily, his great-grandfather walked from Galveston to Bryan, where he became a tenant farmer. His grandfather opened a grocery store, and his great-grandmother used to make lunch for 75 on Sunday afternoons, when the extended family would gather. Later, his father, a petroleum engineer with Gulf Oil, took jobs that led the family to move to Abilene, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Waco. In high school Mauro decided to be a lawyer, though his only contact with the profession was reading about it in Newsweek. “Growing up, I didn’t know a single lawyer,” he says. “We didn’t run in those circles.”

Mauro majored in marketing at Texas A&M. “Turns out I’ve been marketing myself ever since,” he says. His taste for politics was whetted when he ran unsuccessfully for student body president at A&M; later, as a UT law student, he organized a statewide student lobbying organization. Former U.S. senator Ralph Yarborough was impressed enough to ask him to work as his travel aide in his last campaign. Mauro went on to manage Bob Krueger’s against-all-odds election to Congress in 1974, a source of his sense that he can engineer victory from sure defeat. Subsequently he worked for Bob Bullock when he was state comptroller and became the executive director of the state Democratic party. The idea of running for office himself didn’t occur to him for a long time. “I wanted to be the workhorse, not the show horse,” he says. At heart Mauro is still more of a behind-the-scenes operator; establishing intimacy with the masses, second nature to a politician like Bill Clinton, has never been his forte. Drawn to office by a wonkish desire to control policy and by his competitive nature, he decided in 1982 to run for commissioner of the General Land Office. Perhaps the most obscure statewide post—the job involves overseeing public lands and comes without a natural constituency—it was a smart choice for an unknown.

When he first announced he was running, his name identification wasn’t even in the double digits. “I would call people up and say, ‘Garry Mauro is coming to town,’” recalls Judith Dale, who now works at the Land Office. “They would say, ‘Who’s that?’” Mauro diligently turned that situation around by driving to 230 of the state’s 254 counties. “Garry just willed himself in,” says Dale. After winning the primary in a runoff against State Senator Pete Snelson of Midland, Mauro benefited from a Democratic sweep in November 1982, led by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Governor Mark White, and Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby. He has been reelected three times since. His personal fortunes have not always matched his political fortunes, however; two marriages have foundered, and he went through a personal bankruptcy after overextending himself during the real estate boom. His supporters say these trials have only strengthened his character. Mauro is devoted to his two children, whose sports teams he coaches, and despite his two failed marriages, the slogan for his platform is “Texas Families First,” as if to emphasize that modern families come in all shapes and sizes.

The Democratic party used to help loyal functionaries win important elections despite blemishes in their personal lives. Governors such as Preston Smith, Mark White, and Ann Richards all worked their way up through the party’s farm team. Mauro, too, paid his dues, but just when the state’s political tradition suggested it should be his turn in high office, the tradition itself ceased to exist. Last fall, when it came time to decide whether to enter the race, Mauro found himself alone and beleaguered, almost entirely without allies in the state capitol. He decided to run anyway. Early in 1998 Garry Mauro hit the road.

I WAIT FOR MAURO AT A PRIVATE AIRSTRIP IN AUSTIN. it is january, and the deserted lobby echoes with the sense of exile that clings to his campaign. In former years, as the only Democrat in the race, he would have been the automatic favorite, but this year is different. Old colleagues have pointedly failed to endorse him. The worst snub was delivered by his former mentor, retiring Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a man usually known for putting great store in loyalty. After dismissing Mauro’s effort as “a kamikaze mission,” Bullock endorsed Bush.

When Mauro emerges from a black limo, he has the jaunty look of a credible political candidate—tan, fit, perpetually smiling—but he travels without the front-runner’s adulatory crowd. I find myself thinking: It must be so discouraging—going through the motions of a campaign bound to end in disaster. If that is what he’s feeling, however, nothing in his body language betrays it. Inexplicably, he appears to be enjoying himself. He’s wearing jeans and a white turtleneck and could have stepped out of the pages of an outdoors magazine. He grins as he pumps my hand. With the air of someone who doesn’t have a care in the world, he grabs two bags of complimentary popcorn and climbs into the small silver Cessna waiting outside.

I speculate that perhaps his spirits have been rejuvenated by the trip ahead: Bill Clinton is sweeping through the Rio Grande Valley, and Mauro is going to join him. The two have been friends since they worked on another quixotic quest—George McGovern’s 1972 bid for the presidency. But as Mauro settles back into the plane’s leather seats, I begin to appreciate that his mood has a more solid foundation: He is doing what he always wanted to do. He can say what he thinks, and people have to listen. Behind the conventional good looks he harbors a technocrat’s soul; in many ways, he’s more like Al Gore than like Clinton. For the next two hours, Mauro delivers an expanded version of his stump speech to an audience that consists of his press secretary and me. He decries cynicism toward government and rails that the state should do more for the public, sounding as if he were preaching to a throng. As I listen, I realize with dawning surprise that Garry Mauro is happy. It’s not such a bad deal—running around Texas on other people’s money, traveling with the president, getting your name in the Texas Almanac for eternity. The worst he can finish is second. Ahead of him lie ten good months and just one bad day.

His ebullience fades only when I bring up Bullock’s defection. “He was someone I looked up to,” Mauro concedes. “Someone I relied on. That was disappointing.” Otherwise he shrugs off the talk at the Chili Parlor, where Austin insiders condemn him to certain failure. “Let me tell you something,” he says. “In politics, the conventional wisdom is always wrong.” And Mauro has a plan. Step 1: Raise money. Step 2: Generate press by attacking Bush on issues. Step 3: Speak to as many voters as possible. Step 4: Mount a campaign of TV advertisements. Step 5: Use his extensive connections to help get out the vote. “I have a very clear road map,” says Mauro. “It just requires execution. The hard part of this campaign is over.”

MAURO HAS ALWAYS RUN WELL IN SOUTH TEXAS, where he says his Sicilian roots help him identify with Hispanics. Before his swing through the region with President Clinton, we drive to a restaurant in McAllen for a late supper with some of the region’s power brokers. The evening provides my first look at the elaborate vote-getting apparatus that Mauro has spent the past two decades assembling. At a long table we find former congressman Kika de la Garza; State Representative Richard Raymond, who’s running to succeed Mauro as land commissioner; attorney and fundraiser David Oliveira; Ramon Garcia, the Democratic chairman of Hidalgo County; and one non-border politico, State Senator Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi. Although the ever-increasing power of the mass media has eroded their control over elections, they still wield influence here. Mauro hopes these people will execute Step 5 of his election plan and produce a big South Texas vote come November.

Mauro is greeted like family. He orders a steak. The meal is a chance to renew old bonds: After bantering with Oliveira about a case, he asks Raymond about his new baby. “Let me tell you how small the world of politics is,” Mauro says to me. “I’ve known

these guys since the late seventies.” Mauro has also gotten help from his own agency. The following day, for example, we are driven around the area by Annette Muñiz, a ten-year employee of the Land Office who has taken the day off to be at our disposal. Muñiz oversees loans to veterans in the area and describes how Mauro’s expansion of that program has won him many converts in military-oriented South Texas. “Veterans really approve of him in the Valley,” she says. “When I call on them for political things, anytime they hear the name Garry Mauro, they say, ‘Yes. Yes.’”

It is a well-oiled system, a stellar example of old-style politics—even after four years, Bush has nothing like it in place. And perhaps that’s just as well: The line that separates public business from political business is easy to cross. When Mauro ran Clinton’s campaign in Texas in 1992, he came under fire because he and nineteen employees made 1,775 politically related calls using state phones. (Mauro fully reimbursed the state $104 for the calls.) The extensive web of relationships Mauro maintains outside his agency has also entangled him in questionable behavior. Last year he was accused of cronyism for hiring Ruben Johnson, a friend and convicted felon, to run a $52 million program to build centers for disabled veterans. Aside from these kinds of moral hiccups, Mauro is widely hailed as having been a good, even visionary land commissioner—he promoted the use of alternative fuels, started a volunteer program to clean the state’s beaches, mobilized the response to oil spills, and hit up oil companies for higher lease payments. That’s the central contradiction of the man: His background contains the kind of dirty laundry you wouldn’t expect from a politician concerned with bettering the state.

Here in South Texas, anyway, politics, especially Democratic party politics, is still something ordinary people have faith in. For Bill Clinton’s visit, Mission High School is surrounded by an ocean of parked cars; in the bleachers, 18,000 Valley residents energetically wave little plastic American flags. Oblivious to the cynicism sweeping other parts of the media-weary nation, the announcer says, “Let’s give a warm welcome to the national press corps!” The assembly delivers an electric cheer. “And the Secret Service!” Another roar. Clinton seems bowled over by the crowd’s stomping response. “I’d like to thank land commissioner Garry Mauro for being here today,” he intones. Later Mauro slips away for a private talk aboard Air Force One. When I get back in the car, a cell phone rings. It’s Mauro, on board the nation’s most famous plane. “The president’s really jazzed,” he tells me, sounding jazzed himself. “He says it’s like being in Arkansas.”

“THERE’S LOTS OF TALK ABOUT HOW the Democratic party is in trouble!” cries then–party chairman Bill White to the assembled stalwarts. “But did you notice who won the Houston mayor’s race? That’s because ordinary Texans decided to get out and vote!” It’s several days after Mauro’s trip to the Valley, and he’s speaking at the State Democratic Executive Committee meeting in Austin. There’s an attempted show of unity: A man who was recently ridiculing Mauro has now plastered his suit with “Mauro for Governor” stickers. Noticeably absent, however, is state comptroller John Sharp, who’s running for lieutenant governor. Neither Sharp nor state comptroller nominee Paul Hobby has endorsed Mauro. Belatedly recognizing that the desertion of Mauro by fellow Democrats gives the impression that the party is in complete meltdown, its leaders now scurry to make much ado about Mauro’s candidacy. He’s warmly introduced as the next governor.

The room abruptly fills with brassy rhythms played at earsplitting volume. Mauro cranks up the theme from Rocky before all big speeches—another Italian American underdog—apparently unaware that music so identified with the seventies makes him appear out of step. But then Mauro confounds the room with a stem-winder of a speech. He has always been weak behind the podium—a classic policy wonk, he typically benumbs his audiences with facts and figures. Lately, though, Mauro has been working on his speechmaking with longtime friend Roy Spence, a partner in Austin’s GSD&M advertising agency. Somehow Spence has wrought a transformation: This time Mauro seamlessly subordinates numbers and definitions to his main themes. He wants to give teachers a pay raise, he wants to guarantee the residents of Texas the right to choose their own doctors, he wants to hire more cops, and he wants to repeal the tax on motor vehicles. (This helps inoculate him against the “tax-and-spend” label.) Mauro does not charm—he doesn’t reveal enough of himself to do that—but he does convince. Everyone glows at his improved performance. “We have forty-three weeks!” Mauro thunders as he wraps up. “If we talk to average families about how we can be relevant in their lives, we’ll win this election! We’ll win it walking away!”

Behind this public bravado lies another story. Inside Mauro’s campaign’s offices, the biggest issue is money. By February Bush has $13 million in his war chest; Mauro has a measly $1 million. In the weeks leading up to the March primary, the biggest priority is Step 1 of the campaign plan: raise money. Unopposed in the primary election, Mauro spends those weeks asking for donations rather than votes.

Communications director Joe Cutbirth, a former reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, works the phones, feeding stories to the media. For Step 2 of the Mauro plan (attack Bush on the issues), the campaign has identified education, health care, crime, and taxes as issues that resonate with Texans, and now it is impossible to persuade Mauro to talk about anything else. Cutbirth explains that he has indoctrinated Mauro with his theory of the blue and red marbles. Blue marbles are the talking points in “Texas Families First,” everything that Mauro would like the media to report. Red marbles are scandal, controversy, Claytie Williams’ rape joke—everything that the media would like to report. The idea is to fill up reporters’ jars with only blue marbles. Mauro does an admirable job, relentlessly steering every conversation back to the same subjects. His template seems to be Bush’s 1994 victory over Ann Richards, a race that he continually refers to, when Bush steadily gained ground by stubbornly hammering at his issues.

The perfect occasion for Mauro to jump all over Bush presents itself after the governor announces a scheme to end the social promotion of schoolchildren by flunking those who can’t pass the TAAS test. The idea has obvious costs, and Bush is caught unprepared as Cutbirth and the Mauro campaign go to work. BUSH SCHOOL PLAN TO COST $13 BILLION, MAURO SAYS reads a typical headline. Political insiders start talking about how expertly Mauro has handled the situation. Mauro himself says gleefully, “I’ve got him right where I want him.” But the next poll shows Bush with the backing of 67 percent of the registered voters.

SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER THE PRIMARY, Mauro dines at the Texarkana Country Club with Judge Ed Miller—a man often credited with being the prime mover behind all politics in this part of Texas. Sam Attlesey of the Dallas Morning News teases Judge Miller about his seeming omnipotence. “To quote James Reston,” replies Miller, “‘Power is an illusion.’ If people think you have it, you do. If they think you don’t, you don’t.” The comment serves as an inadvertent gloss on Mauro’s dilemma—to convince the public that he is potent enough to win, when everyone has decided that he is not. Even Miller, a longtime supporter, is openly skeptical of his chances. “You’ve got a shot,” Miller says, “but if I was a betting man, which I’m not, I wouldn’t put $100,000 on you to win.” For a second, Mauro looks slightly peeved. “You wouldn’t bet on me?” he asks with exaggerated shock.

When even your friends are so candid, you know you still have work to do. It’s time for Step 3 in the campaign plan. Mauro realizes he will never convince political insiders that he can beat Bush; instead he has to make an end run around the political establishment. Doing so requires visiting as many radio stations, courthouse squares, and coffee shops as humanly possible. The next morning Mauro puts on a navy suit, white shirt, red polka-dot silk tie, belt with a brass Lone Star buckle, and nubby black ostrich-skin boots, and heads for KTOY, a black radio station in Texarkana. Stimulated by caffeine, the sincere desire to right the world, and a competitive urge to squash Bush, he sprints through his main issues. From there, we move to KKYR (“kicker”), where C&W reigns, and then KZRB, another black station. A deejay asks him about a proposal that eleven-year-olds should be eligible for capital punishment. “That’s ridiculous,” says Mauro. “They don’t do anything at that age that justifies the death penalty. I want to be tough on juveniles, but to talk about the death penalty for eleven-year-olds is seriously stupid.” (No softie when it comes to capital punishment, Mauro later questions Bush’s halting of the execution of Henry Lee Lucas, whose conviction was based upon dubious evidence.)

At the Bowie County courthouse, Mauro dispenses his blue marbles: “You can’t raise a family on what we’re paying teachers!” Later he drops a red one into the mix. “In Austin, most people think George Bush is running for president,” he says at the Adline Study Club. “The voters of Texas want a full-time governor!” (MAURO SAYS BUSH WON’T BE DEVOTED: POSSIBLE PRESIDENTIAL BID CALLED DISTRACTION reads the headline in the next day’s Morning News.)

After several more dusty squares and a town meeting in Texarkana, I slump into my seat on the plane. Mauro, perky as ever, is still going strong. I ask how he sustains his animated bearing through the long days, particularly when his efforts seem futile. Mauro looks at me as if I just don’t get it. “I’m running for governor of Texas!” he shoots back. “That’s the greatest job in the world! For somebody of my background to get the chance—I don’t need to do anything to get myself excited. I am excited! I believe all that stuff I’m saying. And I don’t believe the polls. The numbers just don’t matter right now.” No matter what his chances, it’s clear that he is living out his greatest ambition. His soul is no longer crimped by the fetters of stifled hopes. That newfound freedom works on his system like an aphrodisiac.

Mauro may face overwhelming odds, but he’s a pro at campaigns. He finds every weakness that Bush has and exploits it. In April he dips into his meager campaign chest to throw a political ad on TV, springing Step 4 on his rival much earlier than expected, forcing Bush to respond with ads of his own. Mauro’s target is Bush’s 1995 veto of the Patient Protection Act. “If you are a member of an HMO or managed-care health plan like I am, you know that it’s almost impossible to choose your own doctor,” he tells viewers. “Governor George Bush has never had to pick a doctor from an HMO list—yet he vetoed your right to choose your own doctor. . . . To choose your own doctor, you need to choose a new governor.” It is a bold ploy: Candidates aren’t supposed to buy expensive air time until the fall, when voters will pay more attention to politics. The ads are eye-catching and persuasive; more important, they are a sign of real chutzpah and may convince some voters that there is something interesting happening in the governor’s race after all.

Even by mid-summer, however, Austin insiders remain incredulous at the idea of a Democratic victory. The labyrinthine throng of lobbyists and political operatives that surrounds the Capitol starts to redefine what it means to succeed in this race. At barbecues and cocktail parties, they speculate over Mauro’s true motives and what a respectable showing would be. As they see it, Mauro may be happy to get as much as 45 percent of the vote. That outcome would greatly impair Bush’s momentum toward the White House and would also robe Mauro in the kind of bona fides that could set him up for an influential career as a Washington lobbyist. From this perspective, Mauro can’t lose, even if the other guy wins.

The only outcome Mauro will discuss is triumph in conventional terms. The race, he says, is about fulfilling a lifelong ambition. His friends believe him. “This has been his dream,” says Judith Dale. “He wants to be governor of Texas.” When I consider whether Mauro can by some miracle win over the public, however, my mind returns to a night in February, when he celebrated his fiftieth birthday at a series of fundraisers. Hillary Clinton flew in for the events. In Dallas and Fort Worth she enchanted fans, but things didn’t go so well in Austin, where she was interrupted by a heckler protesting the Clinton administration’s threat to bomb Iraq. I finally spotted him: long, greasy hair and a leather jacket. “We don’t want your phony war, Hillary!” he screamed. A jolt of alarmed interest ran through the well-heeled crowd.

At last a quick-witted politician saved the moment by out-heckling the heckler: “Somebody come help this man! He’s going to have a heart attack! Medic! Medic! Medic!” That politician was a natural leader who grasped the situation, seized the spotlight, magnetized the crowed, and defused the danger with humor and aplomb. And it was Ann Richards, not Garry Mauro.