Clinton might as well try to help his party in Texas ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

May 04, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Krueger's puny performance in the special Senate primary election in Texas has raised the question of whether President Clinton should get involved in the runoff campaign in the name of party loyalty.

On the face of it, the notion of Clinton going into Texas -- or Krueger wanting him there -- doesn't make a lot of sense. Opinion polls consistently show the president's approval ratings the state running 10 percentage points or more lower than those nationally, which are not so great either these days.

But if, as politicians in both parties now believe likely, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison wins the runoff, the result will be seen as a black eye for Clinton whether or not he campaigns. The notion that the campaign is any kind of referendum isn't really valid -- voters rarely make two-step decisions -- but it is one that is so widely accepted by the press and political community that it has become the perceived reality.

So the real issue is whether the White House should throw the long bomb and send the president into the state in the face of discouraging odds. There are, moreover, valid arguments for doing so once you get past conventional political thinking.

For one thing, it usually serves a president well to demonstrate loyalty to his party, particularly when there are risks. For the same reason, Clinton might also be well-advised to campaign in Los Angeles for the trailing Democratic candidate in the mayoral election there, City Councilman Michael Woo.

In the case of Texas, moreover, there is always the chance Krueger might pull off the upset and win the runoff -- in which case Clinton would get inordinate credit for sticking his neck out.

It is obvious that Krueger, appointed to the seat when Lloyd Bentsen became secretary of the Treasury last winter, is in serious trouble. In the first primary in which all candidates of both parties ran against one another, he finished second to Hutchison by about 500 votes, each polling 29 percent. With the votes for two other Republicans, Reps. Joe L. Barton and Jack Fields, added, the GOP came away with 57 percent of the vote.

Krueger had been expected to lead the field with at least 33 percent to 35 percent and the fact that he didn't is being widely attributed to weaknesses as a campaigner that he had displayed in previous Senate campaigns in Texas in 1978 and 1984. His campaign operation also has been faulted for not paying enough attention to traditional methods of increasing turnout -- to the point that it ran as low as 10 percent to 12 percent in some normally Democratic areas, compared to 25 percent statewide.

It also appears that Hutchison may have benefited from a large turnout in relatively affluent and Republican areas -- in and around Dallas and Fort Worth, for example -- where there was a high turnout against a school finance initiative that was buried by the opposition. Thus, some Democratic strategists believe it is possible to use a heavy organizational effort to change the makeup of the electorate to make it more favorable in the runoff June 5.

Finally, it is also obvious that the dynamics of a two-candidate confrontation in a runoff can be entirely different from those in a 24-candidate primary in which there was a lot of clutter on the television screens. The Krueger campaign's first imperative will be to focus on Hutchison's positions on issues that may alarm the Democratic core constituencies.

To some extent, of course, the Democrats are whistling past the graveyard. They are not going to turn Bob Krueger into a good old boy down-home Democrat in the next month. Hutchison appears to have benefited from a stronger vote among women than Republicans usually receive.

And the Texas electorate has been increasingly conservative in recent elections. By any objective measure, Hutchison is a clear favorite.

In short, the Democrats are in a position in which the bold stroke may be the only realistic option. Rather than trying to run and hide from Bill Clinton, they might do better to try to use him to raise their own turnout. The worst thing that can happen is that the result will be seen as an embarrassment to the president. But if they don't do anything, that will happen anyway.

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