Texas vote for senator won't be about Clinton ON POLITICS



SAN MARCOS, Texas -- Gillian and Henry Kramer, eatin barbecue on a golden spring day, are both puzzled and amused when a visiting reporter asks them if their opinion of President Clinton has anything to do with how they're going to vote in the special Senate election here next Saturday.

"That's what they were saying on television," Gillian Kramer says, "that Clinton is going to get a black eye here. But I don't see it. I'm going to vote for Kay Hutchison but it doesn't have anything to do with Clinton."

Her husband is similarly unconcerned about how his vote for Democratic Sen. Bob Krueger will be interpreted. "Krueger comes from around here," he says, "so I think he's good people. But I'm not sending any message to the White House or anything. That's political gobbledygook."

The candidates, polling experts and campaign strategists involved in this contest seem to find Kramers everywhere. The fact is that few voters make two-step decisions, and voters here are finding enough reasons to choose among the 24 candidates on the ballot without worrying about Clinton.

Gillian Kramer, for example, is a Democrat supporting Republican state Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison simply because she is a woman. "She's competent and I think we could use more women up there," she says. Husband Henry voted for George Bush last fall because he thought Clinton was too liberal TC but he says Krueger "is not that far out."

The Kramers and others like them defy the conventional thinking of both the press and politicians in Washington that holds there is some lesson that can be drawn from isolated special elections. And what that suggests is a warning that it would be a mistake to draw any serious inferences from what happens here either in the first primary Saturday or the June 5 runoff required if, as is likely, none of the 24 candidates wins 50 percent of the vote.

But politics is also about perceptions, whether or not they are based on sand. So Democrats both here and in Washington are concerned about the possibility Krueger, who was appointed last winter to succeed Lloyd Bentsen, may not be elected.

The notion that this election is a referendum of some kind also is undermined by the "issues" here. The principal one seems to be whether Hutchison once struck an employee, Sharon Ammann, repeatedly with a notebook binder when Ammann was slow finding a telephone number Hutchison needed. Because Ammann and her father, former Gov. John Connally, are supporting a different Republican, Rep. Jack Fields, the question has become whether Hutchison is a victim of what she calls "a sexist charge" and "sleazy politics" or, as her opponents are suggesting, is unfit for the Senate.

The consensus here now is that Krueger will lead the first all-candidate primary but not impressively. Polls show him with about 30 percent of the vote, less than what the pros think he should have as the incumbent and candidate backed by the Democratic Party establishment.

The real contest then is for the second runoff position, and polls suggest Hutchison and Fields the most likely, although there are others -- Rep. Joe L. Barton, for example -- who conceivably could slip by them in the final week. So the first question seems to be whether Hutchison or Fields is gaining from the angry exchanges over the slapping.

And the second question is whether whoever makes the runoff will be unscarred enough to make an effective challenger to Krueger.

The rap on Krueger is not his connection to Clinton. He made a point of standing apart from the president by voting against his economic package, a political necessity in a state where higher energy taxes are poison. The complaint with Krueger is that, despite two decades as a politician, he is as a campaigner still too much the college professor -- he used to teach at Duke -- to connect with Texas voters.

Although the result can't be read as a verdict on Clinton, it is true that the president is certainly no asset for the Democrats here. The same polls that show Krueger with his lead find Clinton's approval rating lower by 10 points than his national figures.

"A lot of people are disappointed in Clinton and they're mad about letting the gays in the Army," Gillian Kramer says, "but there's plenty of other reasons to be against Bob Krueger."

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