Senate Race, Texas-Style

Pinning down candidates in this state race is like lassoing bucking broncos

AS winter gives way to spring in Kansas, late-night drivers on I-70 might be surprised to hear Democrat Jose Angel Gutierrez on the radio, explaining in Spanish and English why he should be the next US senator - for Texas. Outspent by Republicans and other Democrats in the campaign to fill Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's vacant seat, Mr. Gutierrez has been conducting a "borderblasting" campaign.

Some 24 candidates have entered the race. If no one wins a majority in this May 1 "ya'll come" election, the two top finishers hold a June runoff.

Twenty-four is a large field when you consider no one wanted the job when it first became open. The process by which Democratic Gov. Ann Richards filled the seat, which was legally subject to no one's approval but her own, made Bill Clinton's search for an attorney general seem hasty. Governor Richards' protracted process probably alienated more people - particularly progressives who were shut out of the process.

After Bentsen left, "sources close to Richards," began talking up retired Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, a Houston patrician whose mother held a Cabinet position in the Eisenhower administration and whose father was governor 70 years ago. When Mr. Hobby's name was withdrawn, word circulated that his 33-year-old son, who had never held elected office, would be named to the seat.

Focus then shifted to Henry Cisneros, who after weeks of consideration said he didn't want to put a strain on his family. The governor turned to the state comptroller. But he requested his name be removed. Rumors then circulated that Richards would appoint the Texas attorney general, a Mexican American elected with Richards in 1990. Or even herself.

Then came the Democratic congressional delegation, including Houston Rep. Mike Andrews, who seemed to be the governor's choice when she argued publicly that Mr. Andrews' record of hot checks at the House Bank (121 for $103,946) might not be an issue in a special election.

Meanwhile, progressives began to understand that Mr. Bentsen had veto power over candidates, and one leading progressive, a justice on the state Supreme Court, said he was not interested in running. Another, Dallas Congressman John Bryant, said he was.

Columnists began to feed on the governor's appointment debacle and headlines continued to read: "Bentsen Seat Still Unfilled." All the while, Republicans were jockeying for position, and Rep. Joe Barton, now one of three Republican frontrunners, even suggested that Richards appoint him, citing the "obvious lack of qualified candidates in her party."

This was not Ann Richards' finest hour. It seemed she could only save herself by appointing someone who could silence her critics, unite her party, and hamstring the Republicans. Instead, she chose Bob Krueger. Mr. Krueger, a conservative Democrat from the hill country north of San Antonio, is known for his dogged pursuit of elected offices (this is his third Senate campaign) and his two-term tenure in the House, where he consistently voted against Jimmy Carter.

THE Krueger choice brought former congressman and Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox to the edge of the race, where he remained for six weeks, relentlessly attacking Krueger's conservative record.

But after the appointment of Krueger, Richards, a popular governor with a national following found her second wind and within days united her party's diverse groups - labor, African-Americans, Hispanics and trial lawyers - behind Krueger.

If the current Krueger campaign has not caught fire, it is because Bob Krueger is something less than an incendiary candidate. The former literature professor, known for his ponderous oratory, even managed to turn his incumbency into a liability. At least that is what Mr. Gutierrez hopes as he tries to get progressives to join the 200,000 Latinos he thinks will vote for him. Krueger voted twice against Clinton's economic package, joining such Deep South defectors as John Breaux (D) of Louisiana and Richa rd Shelby (D) of Alabama. Krueger's name never appeared among Democratic senators voting to break the recent Republican filibuster of the president's stimulus package.

Other than Krueger's vote on the Family Leave Bill, there is not much to distinguish him from Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm. Even those supporting Krueger have a hard time explaining why. "Give him all the indulgences you can," the state director of the NAACP said at a filing-day rally, explaining to an Austin crowd that Krueger voted the way he did because he's running for election. This is not the sort of endorsement needed by someone as ill-defined as Krueger, who lost his last Senate primary to

a candidate who used a rubber spine to represent him in 1984.

Among Democratic candidates only Gutierrez and Richard Fisher seem to have enough machinery or money to contend. Mr. Fisher, a multi-millionaire Dallas investment banker who held a low-level position in the Carter administration, more recently served as economic adviser to Ross Perot's presidential campaign. His "lets-make-government-work" campaign would probably go unnoticed if not for the Perot job and Fisher's use of his own money to buy $2 million of TV time.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the state treasurer elected when Richards left that post in 1990, was considered the early favorite among a Republican field of three contenders: Ms. Bailey Hutchison, Houston Congressman Jack Fields, and central Texas Congressman Joe Barton.

The Fields campaign eclipsed Bailey Hutchison's, and two weeks before the election she was confronted with charges that she had repeatedly struck a Treasury Department employee who had been required to perform personal chores for her. The woman who claims she was assaulted is the daughter of former Texas Gov. John Connally.

Polling figures have Krueger making the runoff with 23 percent; Bailey Hutchison and Fields both poll just above 10 percent in a fight for the second spot.

As the race concludes, Democrat Fisher and Bailey Hutchison are running against government; Fields against undocumented aliens on welfare; and Barton against gays and abortion. Bob Krueger is running from the president, whose endorsement he solicited and won; Jose Angel Gutierrez is vanstorming the state, taking his message to courthouses, Dairy Queens, and smalltown weekly newspapers.

You may hear from him soon.

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