Texas Parties Vie For Family-Values Title

ONE Saturday every month in Lake Highlands, a Republican-saturated neighborhood of Dallas, 80 Democrats gather to "undemonize" themselves.

That is the word used by Ed Martin, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, to describe what Texans can expect to see more of: Democrats engaged in civic-spirited, publicity-generating activities like litter collection in public parks - especially if GOP lawmakers have just cut spending on the environment.

The idea is to get noticed by voters so Democrats can define themselves as the party of strong community values. As it is, Republicans have done a good job of depicting Democrats as "non-Christian, non-ethical no-goods," admits state Rep. Tom Ramsay, a Democrat from East Texas.

Now Democrats are taking the offensive - and taking seriously the stated GOP goal of capturing both houses of the Texas legislature for the first time in 120 years in next year's elections.

The fight for control of the pink granite statehouse here is symbolic of a struggle going on throughout the South. Despite the Republican realignment in the region last fall, the GOP has yet to take control of many state and local offices in the region.

These often serve as the bullpen for candidates who go on to run for higher offices, and thus the fight going on in Texas, as in other southern states, will help shape the balance of power nationally in the years ahead.

"Nineteen ninety four served as a wakeup call to a lot of our folks," Mr. Martin says. "We've got to make it clear that we're walking our talk."

That message was preached to more than 200 party leaders from around the state on a recent weekend at a Democratic training session in Austin. And it will be emphasized when Democrats take the sessions on the road prior to elections, Martin says.

"In my district, it's important to be a Democrat and to be responsive to Christian values," Mr. Ramsay says. "That's what gets you elected." It was Ramsay, rather than a Republican, who amended a recent school reform bill to establish a two-minute opportunity for prayer.

It may be natural for a rural conservative like Ramsay to take a stand associated with the GOP. But in Houston, the largest Texas city, Democrats are "flailing" for persuasive answers to Republican positions, says Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University.

And in the absence of answers, some Democrats consider switching parties. Actively encouraging such switches is first-term Republican Gov. George W. Bush. He sets aside time every week to call some of the more than 4,000 Democratic officeholders in county governments and ask them to switch allegiances.

A batch of converts was announced in March and another will be this month, says Karl Rove, Bush's political advisor.

That's doubly fortunate for Texas Republicans because of an enduring problem the party has faced in many southern states: recruiting candidates. In the last election, no Republican ran in four of 10 Texas legislative races.

Professor Stein says the Texas GOP does a particularly poor job recruiting and training women candidates. He cites the case of Dolly Madison McKenna, who ran for Congress from Houston and then for state GOP chair.

Mrs. McKenna could have "gone very, very far," he says, but she abandoned politics after she was trashed for not being anti-abortion enough for the party's social conservatives.

The episode exemplifies a rift in the Texas GOP - a divide theparty will likely have to address if it is to reach its goal of controlling the legislature in 1996.

Even Governor Bush comes in for criticism from the party's far right. He angered some party officials by appointing one Democrat and attempting to appoint another to agencies that control 70 percent of state spending - a violation of the "dance with the one who brung ya" rule of politics, says Harvey Kronberg, a respected Texas political observer.

Also, GOP conservatives had hoped to pass a tough tort-reform bill in the recently-concluded legislative session. But by compromising on the bill, "Bush shut them down," Mr. Kronberg says.

But state Sen. Jeff Wentworth argues that the intra-party divide may not be a fatal stumbling block. The social conservatives, he says, "make a lot of noise, and they're well organized" but are in the minority among state Republicans.

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