DUNCAN — Jari Askins enters the Simmons Center with only one adviser.
They're not alone, of course. Her bodyguard, a hulking state trooper in a snug navy blazer, got here at least 30 minutes ago. A media handler arrived even earlier, setting up a camera before leaning against a wall to study her BlackBerry.
Their casual attitudes suggest that here in Duncan — the center of Askins' political influence — there is nothing for her to fear.
"I was born here," she says. "I went all the way through school here. The only time I didn't live here was when I went to college and law school."
Her Duncan roots go deep. She has owned her home for 30 years, a modest one-story ranch house with the sloppiest yard on the crowded street and trees badly in need of trimming. She sings soprano in the choir at First Christian Church, just as she has for decades.
People know her. They know her family. And while not everyone in Duncan supports her bid to become Oklahoma's next Democratic governor, yard signs bearing her name far outnumber those supporting her Republican opponent, Mary Fallin.
Even so, Askins isn't taking anything for granted. She can't.
Askins may be the favorite in Duncan, but she is the underdog in the statewide gubernatorial race. She trails Fallin in fundraising and in polls, and if she is to win, she must do it in an election cycle that seems to favor the GOP and without the equalizing presence of a third-party candidate.
"Askins has to do something only one Democrat has ever done running for an open seat in a governor's race since 1978: She needs to break 50 percent," says Keith Gaddie, a political-science professor at the University of Oklahoma. "Henry Bellmon, Frank Keating and Brad Henry all were governors elected with 40 percent of the vote because of the third-party split."
That split allowed Henry to overcome Republican front-runner Steve Largent in 2002. Without a spoiler — someone to draw votes away from Fallin — Askins' contest promises to be more difficult.
"By all accounts and lots of polling data, this is a Republican year, so I think Lt. Gov. Askins has more challenges," says Cindy Rosenthal, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. "Rep. Fallin is the front-runner. Any time you have a situation like that, it's always a little bit harder to come from behind, especially if the front-runner plays it safe and limits opportunities in which she might make a mistake."
This isn't the first time Askins has faced daunting odds, though. She was an underdog when she ran for lieutenant governor, and many expected her to be swept out of the gubernatorial race this year by her primary opponent, Attorney General Drew Edmondson. She won by less than 1 percent.
She thinks she can beat the odds again.
Different parties, similar views
Sitting in the Duncan conference room, Jari Askins studies Fallin.
Askins' hands are crossed in her lap. She is motionless but for the gentle rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathes and the steady blinking of her eyes. Those eyes are focused on Fallin, who stands just a few paces away, addressing a crowd of politicos, military officials and Chamber of Commerce types.
Ostensibly, this is a meeting about military base realignments and closures. In truth, it's a candidate forum, a chance for Askins and Fallin and others seeking public office to spread their messages and attract campaign dollars.
"Lieutenant governor, it's always a pleasure to be back in your hometown," Fallin says as part of her introductory remarks. "I wish I could've slept in this morning, but I'm glad you were able to do that."
Askins' reply is instant: "I didn't say I slept in."
Laughter rolls through the room, but Fallin soldiers through it. "I bet I had to get up a little earlier," she continues gamely, "but, but anyway, I know you didn't."
That's about as confrontational as it gets between Askins and Fallin, who have known each other since 1993. Back then, Askins was serving as deputy general counsel in the governor's office, and Fallin was a state representative. The next year, Askins was elected to the state House, where she remained until she was term-limited from running again.
"For 12 years," Askins says later, "we were at the Capitol at the same time. Our paths crossed often. She has always been friendly to me. We've always had a conversational friendship."
In ways, the women are more alike than different. Fallin is, by most measures, a far-right Republican. Askins is a conservative Democrat in the reddest state in America, which pushes her to the right of many Republicans elsewhere.
Each talks about improving the quality of education in Oklahoma, attracting jobs and balancing the budget. Each opposes restrictions on gun ownership, speaks openly about faith and is critical of the federal health care initiative. ("It needs to go away," Askins says. "The costs will be exorbitant for small businesses in our state.")
"The only difference between them is what kind of tab they want business to pay," Gaddie says. "You can't separate them on social issues. ... In Oklahoma, there's really only one social issue that matters: abortion. It'd be very difficult to paint her (Askins) as a pro-abortion Democrat based on her record."
The first negative ad in this campaign began airing in early September.
In it, the Republican Governors Association — not Fallin — labels Askins as "too liberal for Oklahoma" and "just like Barack Obama." The ad alleges that Askins is soft on illegal immigration, based in part on her vote for a 2003 bill that allows undocumented students who graduate from Oklahoma high schools to pay in-state tuition and apply for financial aid. The bill, which became law, received widespread support from both parties.
Immigration is a hot-button issue for many conservatives, including Tea Party members.
Askins is cautious about the topic — criticizing the federal government for not enforcing borders but supporting immigration reform.
"Oklahoma and every other state in this nation will do what is necessary to protect itself from drug traffickers who are bringing drugs into their communities," she says. "If the federal government is not going to protect our borders, it should be no surprise when the states take action themselves.
"At the same time ... people who have come here and want to stay and pay taxes and be American citizens shouldn't have to wait a dozen years and pay thousands and thousands of dollars to become citizens. We have to find a way to make that dream come true for those who want it."