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And what little he's told his new neighbors in the 25th Congressional District about himself has come almost exclusively in settings his campaign controls -- primarily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars of television and radio ads bought with the $1.6 million (as of the last public accounting) he's donated or lent to his campaign. As of this week, Fontenot had not engaged in a debate with Bentsen, and since he announced his candidacy late last year, he has conducted only one news conference. In the few appearances he's made with Bentsen before unaligned groups, Fontenot has read his positions from a prepared text and hasn't taken questions from his audiences.

Fontenot does spend a good deal of time "block walking" in the east Harris County portion of the district, but his encounters with would-be voters there are only slightly less spontaneous than his glossy TV commercials. When Fontenot and wife Reina go door-to-door searching for votes in Pasadena, Deer Park and La Porte, ferried to the targeted streets by a Mallard recreational vehicle sporting a slew of "Fontenot for Congress" and "Rush is Right" bumper stickers, the candidate greets potential voters with a string of rehearsed platitudes that ends with the declaration, "I'm the conservative," as if that pretty much sums up what anybody would need to know about him. Then he hands them a "door hanger" -- an 8 1/2 by 3 3/4-inch card that also can be hung on a doorknob when no one answers a knock. Printed on the back of the card is "Gene Fontenot on the issues," 82 words of nostrums on crime ("... let's start protecting the good people for change ... "), the economy ("... higher taxes punish success and reward failure ..."), welfare reform ("The government doesn't owe any able-bodied American a paycheck ...") and term limits (he's for them).

For voters who'd like to know more, Fontenot leaves them with this explanation as he hands them his door hanger: "What I stand for," he says, "is on the back."

On the front of his door hangers is a picture of Fontenot, looking intent as he cradles a phone receiver, and a sparse thumbnail sketch of his life: "battlefield surgeon" (he pulled a year's duty as a Navy surgeon in Vietnam in 1967-68), "practicing physician" (a claim he acknowledges is a mistake, since it's been a decade since he practiced medicine), "successful businessman" and "family man."

Born in New Orleans and raised just southwest of the city in the rural backwater of LaFourche Parish, Fontenot says his father was a dairy farmer, and he grew up in a household where French and English were spoken. He attended Louisiana State University, where he obtained a degree in chemistry in 1958 and was president of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, and later enrolled in medical school at the University Autonoma of Guadalajara, Mexico, where he graduated in 1963. Part of his medical residency was completed at the old Memorial Baptist Hospital in downtown Houston, and, after fulfilling his military obligation, Fontenot returned to the city and set up a family practice.

Fontenot retains a trace of a Cajun accent, and occasionally in conversation his voice will take on an avuncular lilt, making him sound like a bayou country Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, he says "gosh" when he wants to underscore his mock incredulity at something his opponent has said. Unlike Reagan, his stage presence could be charitably described as slightly better than wooden, and his conversation and speeches are punctuated by a frequent and pronounced squint.

The full effect might leave you thinking "rube," but that would be a serious underestimation of Eugene Fontenot. He's a shrewd investor -- the financial disclosure report he was required to file when he launched his congressional bid last year showed him to have assets of at least $3.8 million, although the figure could be much higher, given that candidates are required to list their assets and income only in broad dollar categories. His 1993 tax return, which he released earlier this year, showed he reported an income of $346,000 last year. Fontenot formerly was a part-owner and director of Houston Northwest Medical Center and presently owns part of Cypress Fairbanks Hospital at FM 1960 and Jones Road, outside the 25th District.

Fontenot also has amassed an impressive academic record outside of his discipline -- he pursued an MBA from Southern Methodist University, took a master's degree in public health from Tulane and obtained a law degree from South Texas College of Law. He's quick to note that he's not a practicing attorney, explaining that he got his law degree only so other lawyers wouldn't take advantage of him in business dealings.

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Jim Simmon