Little interest seen in senatorial race


April 24, 1993|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas -- The special Senate election here next Saturday is supposed to be a high-stakes test of President Clinton and national directions. But it could turn on whether voters believe -- or care -- whether state Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison whacked former Gov. John Connally's daughter with a notebook binder in August 1991.

There will be 24 candidates on the primary ballot. The one certainty seems to be that the leader will be Sen. Bob Krueger, the Democrat appointed to replace Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen.

But Mr. Krueger has been evoking so little enthusiasm that few Texas politicians would rate him better than even in the runoff June 5 if, as expected, no one reaches 50 percent in that first primary.

The election seems to have escaped the notice of most Texans. Opinion polls show 30 percent to 40 percent claiming to be undecided. The contest attracted remarkably little public attention until the flap over Ms. Hutchison, putatively the leading Republican in the field, and Sharon Ammann, the daughter of Mr. Connally.

In an interview with the Houston Post, Ms. Ammann, who once worked for Ms. Hutchison, said the Republican state treasurer lost her temper and began wielding the notebook one day when Ms. Ammann was slow to locate a critical telephone number. "I'm standing at the file cabinet and she is beating me with every single word that she says," Ms. Ammann reported.

It turned out, however, that both Ms. Ammann and her father are supporting Rep. Jack Fields of Houston, one of Ms. Hutchison's leading Republican rivals. That led to suspicion that the Fields campaign might have encouraged Ms. Ammann to speak out, an initiative stoutly denied by all involved.

Although Ms. Ammann produced a corroborating witness, Ms. Hutchison denied hitting anyone, calling it a "sexist charge" and "sleazy politics." Then, in short order, Ms. Ammann took a lie detector test, and Mr. Fields demanded that Ms. Hutchison do the same, which she promptly did. Each says she passed.

A couple of days later, a Dallas television station aired a re-creation of the incident, with Ms. Ammann playing the part of Ms. Hutchison striking a stand-in with a notebook.

Just how all this back-and-forth is playing is anyone's guess. The poll-taker for one rival candidate says Ms. Hutchison is "bleeding from the arteries" since the controversy erupted. Another campaign strategist says nothing has changed except that Mr. Fields may have established himself as the prime rival to Ms. Hutchison ahead of U.S. Rep. Joe L. Barton, who has focused his campaign almost entirely on conservatives angered by the issues of abortion rights and gays in the military.

The notion of the contest as some test of President Clinton doesn't hold water. Mr. Krueger has distanced himself from the president on the gays-in-the-military issue and his economic package, reflecting the conventional wisdom that in Texas no politician can support higher energy taxes.

Polls here show the president's approval rating running 10 percent or more lower than nationally. But there is no evidence that voters are against Mr. Krueger because there is a Democrat in the White House who captured only 37 percent of the vote in Texas last November.

"Inside the Beltway," Mr. Krueger said, "people view it as a referendum on Clinton. In Texas, people view it as, 'Who is my senator?' "

Ms. Hutchison apparently is benefiting from her position as the only woman among the serious players in the contest. She has attracted about 20,000 contributors, an impressive number for such a campaign. Polls also show no gender gap in her support -- which is probably a sign of a gender gap in her favor because there has been a pro-Democratic tilt of 6 percent to 8 percent among women in many Senate and gubernatorial elections in recent elections.

"It's the first time I've ever run when it's been a positive factor," Ms. Hutchison said.

Although the focus now is on whether Mr. Fields can overtake Ms. Hutchison and get into the runoff, the concern among knowledgeable Democrats here is whether Mr. Krueger can hold the seat.

The fear among Democratic professionals has been fueled by published polls that show Mr. Krueger with less than 30 percent of the vote, despite his statewide name recognition as an appointed senator and former member of the state Railroad Commission, and despite his support from popular Gov. Ann Richards and almost the entire Democratic establishment. By most conventional standards, he might be expected to have close to 40 percent of the vote.

"He's going to have a hard time," a leading Democratic strategist said. "He shouldn't be in the 20s. The perception will be that he's in a dead heat with the Republicans."

The rap on the Democrat is that he is too aloof and cerebral a campaigner to be effective in Texas. A former Duke professor, he is given to quoting Shakespeare and Plutarch and heaven knows who else. Despite his 20 years in politics here, no one would accuse him of being a good old boy.

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