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DENTON - "Grandma" lost her argument for a contrived ballot nickname.

But Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn of Austin might have found a plank on which to build a campaign against Gov. Rick Perry.

It's a plank 600 miles long and a quarter-mile wide. It's a giant, privately owned, multilane tollway that would part the Texas countryside the way the governor parts his ample hair.

Strayhorn, a Republican running as an independent candidate, has criticized the Trans-Texas Corridor tollway plan loudly for months. So have the other principal challengers in this traffic jam of a race, novelist Kinky Friedman of Medina and Democrat Chris Bell, a Houston lawyer.

But when uneasy Texans filed into a new round of public hearings this week, Strayhorn was first up to speak at a Denton meeting.

When she shouted that she wants to "stop Governor Perry from shoving toll roads down Texans' throats," the crowd in a University of North Texas ballroom broke into applause.

She isn't finished. Strayhorn will bring her tollway tough-talk to Hillsboro tonight for a hearing in the Hill College auditorium.

She had 800 Cooke County residents standing on their chairs and cheering last month when she spoke at an anti-tollway rally in Woodbine, where trucks from Laredo, Mexico and Pacific Ocean ports would cross a quarter-mile-wide swath of horse pastures.

Rural Texans fearing a 10-lane tollway are now connecting with a fringe anti-immigration crowd that fears a superhighway from Mexico. The cross-pollination of criticism can only hurt Perry, an incumbent easily leading the polls although 62 percent of Texas voters favor one of his three major opponents.

The Woodbine rally "was a happening," Strayhorn said after her speech. "This is a major issue that is going to decide the vote in at least 30 counties. Rural Texas has been concerned all along, and now North Texas is catching on."

The route is opposed by local leaders because it loosely follows Interstate 35E to the east of Dallas, an hour's drive from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport or Fort Worth.

Strayhorn drew the distinction that she does not oppose an international highway or trade.

"I'm opposing toll roads," she said. "I am adamantly opposed to this governor's boondoggle."

In the crowd, Shirley Spellerberg of Corinth, a former state Republican committeewoman, sat waiting to speak.

"I don't like anything about this," said Spellerberg, mayor of Corinth for 16 years and a lobbying force for the religious-conservative Texas Eagle Forum.

"It's going to open the flow of truck traffic bringing illegal aliens, drugs, terrorists -- who knows what? It's a horrible idea," she said. "Plus, these poor people will lose their land to this monstrosity."

Spellerberg pointed out that Texas Republicans passed a platform plank last month opposing the condemnation of land for use by a private business. Madrid-based Cintra is investing $6 billion in the project along with partner Zachry Construction of San Antonio.

The Republican platform calls for canceling the project.

Perry supports the corridor "because President Bush wants it," Spellerberg guessed. "I think it started out at the top. Perry's just doing what he's been told."

Strayhorn sidestepped the issue of border security. But she criticized Perry for agreeing to let Cintra negotiate in secret.

The state highway agency is the Texas Department of Transportation, she told the audience -- "not the European Department of Transportation."

Denton County Commissioner Sandy Jacobs of The Colony came to support the tollway. Jacobs, a 24-year commissioner, is not only a reliable leader in Denton County's long-standing Interstate 35 expansion effort, she is a board member of a suddenly controversial Dallas lobbying organization, North America's SuperCorridor Coalition (NASCO).

Her e-mail has been busy lately. On a June 21 show, CNN entertainment host Lou Dobbs moved into the black-helicopter zone when he asked suspiciously whether a U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade agreement signed last year might mean the "end of the United States as we know it." The show depicted a borderless map from NASCO's Web site that draws a "supercorridor" from Mexico City to Canada, including the Texas tollway.

"All we're looking for is a trade corridor," Jacobs said in an interview before Tuesday's forum. "If we can help a Wal-Mart truck cross the border faster and go safely from Mexico to Minneapolis in less time, then we've helped the economy."

A new highway is needed no matter what happens with security along the Mexico border, she said: "Free trade is going to continue as long as we're part of the global economy."

When Strayhorn finished speaking, Jacobs' turn was next.

She challenged the comptroller-candidate head-on: "Carole Strayhorn, I totally disagree!"

Jacobs continued: "Not once up here, Carole Strayhorn, did you say anything but 'No! No! No!' ... Mrs. Strayhorn, tonight you filled the air with political rhetoric, not answers!"

When Jacobs sat down, Strayhorn rushed up.

"I only had three minutes!" she protested.

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