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Texas Democrat Davis battles suspicions of embellishing life story

Texas state Senator Wendy Davis speaks to supporters in Haltom City, Texas October 3, 2013. REUTERS/Darrell Byers
Texas state Senator Wendy Davis speaks to supporters in Haltom City, Texas October 3, 2013. REUTERS/Darrell Byers

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - An inspiring escape-from-poverty story helped Texas Democrat Wendy Davis rise to political prominence, but suspicions that she embellished parts of her biography could hurt her campaign for governor.

Davis's campaign is facing its first test in crisis management after the Dallas Morning News in the past week published reports questioning details of how Davis, a state senator, went from teenage mother in a Texas trailer park to Harvard Law School graduate.

The campaign's response could determine if it can make the November race against Republican favorite Greg Abbott competitive or if Davis, who stepped into the national spotlight last year, will be swept away in a landslide, like many Democratic challengers before her. Democrats have not won a statewide race in Texas since 1994.

"It is going to be a speed bump if she handles it well," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Abbott, the state's attorney general, has so far kept quiet about the controversy, but Jillson said Abbott's team has been researching Davis's past and could make some questionable details an issue if the race becomes close.

Davis, 50, gained national standing in 2013 when she donned pink running shoes and staged a dramatic 10-hour filibuster at the Texas statehouse against sweeping abortion restrictions.

The event made her a darling of Texas Democrats who felt the filibuster, seen by millions on TV news and through Internet streaming, combined with her personal story would propel her into one of the most appealing candidates for governor the party has had for years.

But now the Dallas Morning News has questioned when Davis divorced her first husband, saying it was when she was 21 and not 19 as she had said in her official campaign bio.

It also questioned how long Davis lived in a trailer park, saying it was just a few months, though her bio implied it was much longer.

The paper also said her second husband, attorney Jeff Davis, from whom she is now divorced, played a greater role than had been acknowledged by the candidate in raising Davis's children - a daughter that the couple had together and Davis's daughter from her first marriage- and financing Davis's education at Texas Christian University and Harvard Law.

"A DAY IN MY SHOES"

In an extensive interview last week, Davis acknowledged some chronological errors and incomplete details in what she and her aides have said about her life, the Dallas Morning News said.

Davis told the paper there were errors and the language for her biography "should be tighter."

She later said in a statement: "I am proud of where I came from and I am proud of what I've been able to achieve through hard work and perseverance. And I guarantee you that anyone who tries to say otherwise hasn't walked a day in my shoes."

Abbott is expected to win the governor's race, but if Davis can keep the margin of victory to less than 10 percentage points, it could enliven the Democrats as demographic numbers shift in its favor, analysts said.

Under current projections, the state's Hispanic population could become the majority by around 2030, potentially tipping the political balance in the Republican state to the Democrats.

Davis came out strong in the early stages of the campaign. She raised $12.2 million from July to December 2013, outpacing Abbott during the same period, according to funding data the campaigns released this month.

The last major statewide poll, released in November, showed Abbott leading Davis by 5 to 6 percentage points. The poll was conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune.

"Davis has made her life story the fundamental part of her campaign," said Mark Jones, the chair of Rice University's political science department. "The more holes that are punched in this story, the more trouble it causes for her."

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

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