Great expectations face the favorites in Texas ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

March 09, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

DALLAS -- With the biggest delegate prizes at stake so far in Tuesday's Texas primary, Gov. Bill Clinton of neighboring Arkansas and Texas' most celebrated "resident," President Bush, are both running against a faceless candidate called "expectations.

Clinton, who has been a familiar figure on the Texas political scene ever since he ran George McGovern's campaign in the state in 1972, is for all practical purposes the only Democratic candidate with a real organization here. He has most Democratic state officials on board, excepting Gov. Ann Richards, who has stayed neutral.

This lineup has made him the overwhelming favorite to beat former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who has enlisted former U.S. Rep. and current Railroad Commissioner Bob Krueger to throw together a late campaign effort.

George Shipley, an unaligned Austin pollster and consultant, calls Tsongas "a happening, an ephemeral guy" who will be the obvious vehicle for whatever anti-Clinton vote exists here. Party veterans say because of his longtime courtship of Texas, Clinton should exceed the 57 percent he got last week in winning his first primary in Georgia.

Clinton himself declines to play the expectations game but that doesn't stop others here from doing so. Tsongas, realistically, says he is pursuing a "silver medal" strategy here and in the six other states holding contests on Super Tuesday, meaning he will settle for being runner-up to Clinton and meeting the 15 percent threshold required to gain delegates.

The other two Democrats still in the race, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and former Gov. Jerry Brown, are not expected to be factors. Harkin has abandoned the state and Brown has waged only his guerrilla campaign here. But his aggressive performance against Clinton in Thursday night's four-man debate in Dallas could rally the fed-up vote, probably at Tsongas' expense.

The allegations against Clinton of womanizing and of draft-dodging during the Vietnam War have not seemed to bother many Texas voters, party veterans here say. After the mudslinging gubernatorial race here in 1990, says Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist and pollster, Texans' tolerance is pretty high. Democratic state chairman Bob Slagle says of the draft allegations: "Nobody's much interested in Vietnam anymore; it's a war we lost."

But some are concerned, party officials say, about Clinton's ability to embrace various constituencies and issues at once, a talent that has earned him the nickname "Slick Willie." And others continue to worry about Clinton's vulnerability to Republican onslaughts in the fall if he is nominated.

Tsongas' main vulnerability may be his espousal of a 5-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase to help pay for a new energy policy aimed at reducing costly dependency on foreign oil. In this expansive state where auto transportation is tied inexorably to jobs, gas tax boosts are particularly unpopular.

President Bush's contest with expectations is a product of the fact he still calls Texas home although his residence is a rented suite in a Houston hotel that he seldom uses. His challenger, Patrick Buchanan, has made a foray into Texas but is concentrating on smaller Super Tuesday primaries in the South.

Although Texas' economy is making a slow comeback, Slagle says, "many Republicans believe the economy's gone south under Bush." But, he acknowledges, "there is also a sensitivity not to embarrass him" in the state he calls home. Karl Rove, a Republican consultant, says the president's Texas ties will see him through here against Buchanan. "Texans don't cut and run from weenies on the Gulf war," he says in apparent reference to Buchanan's original opposition to use of force.

Karen Hughes, the state party executive director, says Texans have a lot of pride in the president and "I find it hard to imagine they will attempt to use their votes to send a message" of concern as has occurred in other states. But a Buchanan vote approaching what he has received elsewhere would be interpreted just that way.

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