New Politics in Texas

The GOP has been counting for years on the Texas suburbs as a stronghold. This year, because of Gov. Ann Richards, they may be surprised

FOUR years ago Ann Richards kicked off the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, taking a few swipes at George Bush. "Poor George," Ms. Richards said, "was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Then the Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis, the Republicans came to Texas with Willie Horton and said Mr. Dukakis was going to take everyone's guns away - and the rest is history.

That was 1988. Richards, then state treasurer, was a rising star in the Democratic Party. Richards' 73 percent favorable rating almost guarantees her a second term in two years. And in Texas, President Bush is in trouble.

Both parties are watching the polls, wondering about the "Perot factor" and the effects of the negative campaign Bush is running. "Our most recent poll has Clinton ahead by one point," said Kirk Adams, director of the Democrats statewide coordinating office.

Bush-Quayle Texas Chief Jim Oberwetter touts numbers from a Mason-Dixon Poll that has the president ahead by four points. The current trend, Mr. Oberwetter said, shows the president's support is increasing.

Texas isn't a state Republicans normally worry about. But with the election two weeks away, the 32 electoral votes in the state the president calls home are up for grabs. "Texas is the Russian winter of presidential politics," said labor organizer Dee Simpson. Spread across 19 media markets - some bilingual - are two time zones. Texas, as Dukakis found, is like four states.

This year, the president has problems in two of those states: East Texas and Urban Texas. Even in his original West Texas hometown, Bush's support is flagging. "I have never seen enthusiasm lower," said a Republican Party leader from the city of Midland who requested his name be withheld. "We are getting volunteers for the phone banks, but it's not because they're excited about the president." It's because people remember Bush. The economy, and independent oilmen who claim they are ill-served by Bush, ha ve turned some Midlanders against him. Bush will easily carry Midland, but turnout might be down. The rest of West Texas, and the Panhandle, will remain in the Republican column.

Bill Clinton will carry South Texas, the largely Hispanic region that extends from San Antonio to Brownsville. But an embarrassing revelation that a young Hispanic prot of the governor doctored a resume might discourage voter turnout. Railroad Commissioner Lena Guerraro's incremental confession, that she neither graduated from the University of Texas nor made it into Phi Beta Kappa, was offered up in a series of three press conferences over 10 days and seemed to be the only news during the mid-part of th e campaign.

MS. Guerrero, a former Austin legislator born in the Rio Grande Valley and appointed to an unexpired term on the Railroad Commission, was expected to drive the South Texas campaign. She remains in the race. But for many Hispanic voters, the thrill is gone. That could effect turnout in a region where voters turned out in record numbers for Dukakis (and Lloyd Bentsen).

East Texas is "Yellow Dog Democrat" country, a place where many still say they would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican - except in presidential elections. Separated from the rest of the state by a "Pine Curtain," East Texas is the Deep South. It is dominated by Baptists and fundamental Christians. It includes a large number of blacks; communities are more segregated than most others in the state. It gave itself to Ronald Reagan twice and was easily carried by Bush in 1988.

"It's going to be hard for the Republicans this year," said Jerry Johnson, a Democratic state representative from Nacogodoches. "You've got two Southerners running on the Democratic ticket and the economy is down all over East Texas. This year all the down-ballot candidates are real happy with the top of the ticket." Democrats say they have to carry the region by 55 percent to win statewide.

That leaves the cities - Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio - where Democrats want the governor to deliver the votes. Until Richards defeated West Texas corporate rancher Clayton Williams in 1990, calling elections in cities was easy. Democrats would win "inside the loop" and Republicans would win the suburbs, where most of the population is. Richards reversed that pattern. "We need to get further out [from the inner cities]," Mr. Adams said, "to duplicate what Governor Richards did in `90."

Suburban swing voters and moderate Republicans uncomfortable with the party's rigid position on abortion and its ties to the Christian right are the same voters who swung the election to Richards in 1990. So the governor is in a good position to win the "battle in the 'burbs."

Houston, where a Christian faction is trying to topple the Republican Party county chair because she encouraged gays to participate in Republican politics, is a likely place for Richards to begin. "The governor will be a factor," Texas Republican Party Chairman Fred Meyer said. "She's not much of a governor but she's a great politician."

A poll taken after Ross Perot re-entered the race gives Bush and Clinton 37 percent of the vote, Mr. Perot 17 percent; 13 percent are undecided. The governor will step up her campaigning during the early-voting period, which begins Oct. 14.

"We knew it would be close. We anticipated a long, hard campaign and a close victory for the president," Mr. Meyer said.

"What's hard to figure in this Russian winter," labor activist Mr. Simpson said of Bush losing his home-state advantage, "is who's the czar and who's Napoleon." But in October, with Republicans tied down in a state that used to surrender with out a fight, Ann Richards seems to be calling the shots from Austin.

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