With Bentsen on ticket, all Texas bets are off
Houston — In Texas, they whoop and holler about guns and the pledge of allegiance. But they're jittery about the depressed energy industry, a deeply shaken banking system, and drugs pouring across their southern border. That dichotomy is helping to make what was expected to be a safe Republican state in November's presidential election a battleground more reminiscent of the Alamo.
With Republicans and Democrats alike calling Texas perhaps the key to victory for either George Bush or Michael Dukakis, both sides are deploying strategies to win the independent voters who analysts say will ultimately determine who takes the state's 29 electoral votes.
This was supposed to be an easy win for Vice-President Bush, who built an oil business in the state and cut his political teeth in Houston in the 1950s and '60s. Texas has only voted Democratic once in the last five presidential races, in 1976.
But then Governor Dukakis named as his running mate Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a popular and respected conservative Democrat who first entered the Senate by defeating Bush in 1970.
Many political analysts still believe Bush should win here. They say he got off to a good start when, during a recent tour through the state, he exhibited ``Texas values'' - overt patriotism, pro-gun and anti-abortion stances, give-'em-hell leadership - and continued to sow seeds of doubt about a ``very liberal'' Dukakis ``out of touch with our great state.''
But analysts say Dukakis can cultivate doubts of his own about Bush if he hammers away on issues - energy, banking, drugs - that are at the top of many Texans' concerns, and which they consider failures of the Reagan administration. While Bentsen is considered credible in these areas, they add, Dukakis will have to make those issues his own.
``Having Bentsen on the ticket provides Dukakis with an opening,'' says political consultant George Christian, ``but he's got to follow through. He has to take the offensive on issues that leave Texans uneasy about George Bush.''
Both parties appear to believe that each candidate can count on about a third of the state's voters, and that the election will belong to whoever woos the remaining third.
At a GOP strategy session in Houston late last month, senior Bush adviser Charles Black told more than 200 party enthusiasts that their targets for winning that uncommitted third are suburban independents, rural conservative Democrats, and conservative Hispanics.
Mr. Black advised campaign workers to use four ``issue clusters, going with what you think will work best in your area'':
Crime, with an emphasis on the death penalty, weekend furloughs for criminals in Massachusetts, and Dukakis's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union;
Social values, including school prayer, gun control, and abortion.
Recognizing that the economy is not a strong Republican selling point here, Black told campaigners to ``put a Texas spin on the economic arguments, and that means emphasizing taxes.''
Republican phone banks, with plans to make 1.2 million calls in September and October, will target rural areas, in part a response to Bentsen's perceived popularity there.
The Democrats will mount an extensive get-out-the-vote campaign, with phone and mail campaigns targeting precincts that vote either heavily Democratic or swing between the parties. But it will rely above all on the extremely broad Bentsen organization.
It was largely Bentsen's coattails that elected a Democratic governor over a GOP incumbent six years ago, and Democrats are hoping that having the senator's name on the ballot twice - for vice-president, and for reelection to the Senate - will have the same effect for Dukakis.
The Dukakis campaign is also developing countergroups to shoot down some of the ``myths'' they say the Bush camp is spreading about their candidate. Last week, creation of ``Law Enforcement Officials for Dukakis-Bentsen,'' made up of Democratic sheriffs, district attorneys, and others, was announced to emphasize Dukakis's crime-fighting record. A list of prominent conservative Democrats, including many well-known Texas business leaders, is expected to be announced soon.
But political observers say organization is not going to be enough to win the race in Texas this year.
``The Bentsen selection fundamentally changed the kind of election that has to be waged in Texas,'' says Tieman Dippel, a bank president from Brenham. ``With Bush and Bentsen on the ballot, the battle for the independent voters will be a philosophical one: Who really represents the Texas point of view?''
Mr. Dippel, a Republican who supports the notion of what some are calling the ``Texas triumvirate'' - Bush in the White House, Bentsen in the Senate as chairman of the Finance Committee, and Jim Wright as speaker of the House - says there are issues that the Democrats can use to win the battle.
One is the state's depressed banking industry. ``Texas has been suffering for the last four years from this, and I think people can rightly say that very little has been done by the administration to help,'' says the president of the healthy Brenham National Bank. ``It's something that goes to the heart of rural Texas, and it will be a key to the state's recovery.''
Another, he says, is space. ``It's vitally important to our economy, but it's also something that defines the future,'' Dippel says. ``Dukakis saying Bentsen would oversee our space effort won him points.''
Still, Dippel believes an election pitting philosophies should benefit the Republicans:
``Without Bentsen, that swing vote would be Republican philosophically. His candidacy has muddied the waters, but if Bush can make this turn on the Texas philosophy, then he ought to win it.''
A Sept. 6 article stated incorrectly that in the last five presidential elections, Texas voted Democratic only in 1976. A plurality of the Texas vote also went to the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, in 1968.