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Is She In? Wendy Davis On Running For Governor And Life As A Teenage Mom

With Republicans Greg Abbott and Tom Pauken already campaigning for governor, Texans want to know whether Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth will challenge them from the Democratic side.

Davis says she hasn't decided, but her abortion filibuster last month not only brought her national stardom, it raised the hopes of Texas Democrats like Evan Odell. 

 “We need heroes we can believe in," he says. "I think we’d be better off with her than a tea party lawyer like Greg Abbott."

Odell was at a Fort Worth rally where Davis spoke last week. 

“Our partisan leadership in charge does not respect the rights of all Texans to make critical decisions about themselves and their bodies,” Davis told a loudly cheering crowd of about 1,000.

The women’s health care message hit home with Jennifer Graham, who says she likes the way “Governor Davis” sounds.

“I was a kid when Ann Richards was governor," Graham says. "Maybe we need another woman up there."

But it could be tough to sustain the enthusiasm until the election 16 months from now.

And there are the cold, hard political numbers.

Southern Methodist University’s Cal Jillson breaks down the challenge: “If you look at the partisan balance over the last 10 to 15 years, the Republicans have had a very steady 8- to 12- to 16-point advantage. And the fact that she made a wonderful filibuster speech and is potentially an attractive candidate doesn’t close a 15-point gap.”

Still, in her Capitol office, elegant in pro-choice orange, the 50-year-old senator seems unfazed by Texas voting patterns.

“I think people are … going to be asking whether the leadership to date has been reflecting the things they care about," she says, "not whether a D or an R represents them, but whether their values are reflected by the person who is there.”

So does she think a Democrat could win the governor's mansion in 2014?

“Oh, absolutely.” 

And what would make her decide if this is the right time to run?

“Determining whether there would be the ability to raise the funds that need to be raised is part of it," Davis says. "Determining whether the desire of Texans really is to see a new face and leadership in the state is part of it.”

Part of it might also be whether Davis is willing to have opponents examine and attack everything about her personal and professional life. 

In previous campaigns, opponents have accused her of conflicts of interest, something she’s always denied. 

But SMU’s Jillson says scrutiny in a governor’s race goes beyond that.

“The opposition research people who are right now polling all the issues related to Wendy Davis and seeing which one is likely to be detrimental to her, those people start throwing the kitchen sink at you,” he says. “And for a candidate who has never experienced it, it can be overwhelming.”

Davis’ story of being a single, teenage mother who eventually graduated from Harvard Law School is compelling.  She’s talked about how her circumstances made the family planning issue important for her.  She relied on Planned Parenthood for health care.

Now she’s also faced with other extremely personal questions that may be on voters’ minds. Here's an excerpt from our interview:

Kofler:  “Did you ever personally consider an abortion?  Would it ever have been something you as a young woman would have thought about?”

Davis:  “That is obviously a very deeply personal question.  When I was 18 and expecting, I made a decision to have a beautiful child who I’m very proud to have raised. She’s 30 years old now, and she’s a tremendous joy in my life.

“What I had the opportunity to do from that point, though, was to have good decision-making about what I would do going forward and again accessing those services that were provided to me by that clinic on Henderson Street and to prevent an unplanned pregnancy was something I took advantage of. And I am very pleased I had that ability.”

Monday, Davis released campaign finance reports showing she raised more than $900,000 during the final two weeks of June. And much of that came in after her high-profile filibuster and a raucous crowd temporarily stalled an abortion bill that didn't pass until last week. 

But her total is a drop in the bucket compared to the $4.8 million that Republican Abbott says he raised during the same time period. 

Still, it's not bad for a state senator who was not well known outside her district until a month ago, and now has Republicans wondering -- maybe even worrying -- about what she plans to do.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.