DALLAS -- It is always risky and often dead wrong to see any election as a referendum on national issues. Most voters don't cast their ballots to send a message but instead to choose among the rascals they are being offered on the ballot that day.
That fact of political life does not mean, however, that the outcome of the special Senate election here won't be interpreted as a referendum on President Clinton -- particularly if, as expected, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison defeats Democratic Sen. Bob Krueger.
And, in one sense, there is some validity in drawing such an inference in this case. At the least, it is fair to say that if Clinton were in a stronger position, Krueger might have a better chance of stirring some enthusiasm among moribund Democratic regulars in a state that is becoming increasingly conservative with every passing election.
The underlying problem for Krueger, added to his own glaring weaknesses as a campaigner, is that the new Democratic administration in Washington is in such bad odor right now that he has no program he can embrace to make a reasonable case for keeping the seat held so long by Lloyd Bentsen in Democratic hands.
Opinion polls have been showing all along that Clinton's approval rating in Texas has been even lower than it is nationally, now somewhere between 36 percent and 41 percent by the most recent polls. What is more menacing to incumbent Krueger, as well as incumbent Clinton, is that the number of voters who believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction" has now reached 75 percent in private polls made by both campaigns here.
A "wrong track" number that high ordinarily is a good reason for political panic on the part of any incumbent. The figure among Texans today is roughly the same as the national figure reached early in 1992 under then-President George Bush.
In the long run, of course, Clinton has the potential for turning the polls around before he must face the electorate in 1996. If the economy improves demonstrably by that time, a "right direction" number of 75 percent would be no surprise. And Clinton and other Democrats could claim the credit.
But right now Clinton offers his party colleagues nothing in the way of a political lifeline. Because it rests so heavily on energy taxes, the Clinton budget is poison in the Oil Patch states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. And his original support for revoking the prohibition against homosexuals in the military has evoked scorn among voters here.
The result is a badly demoralized Democratic Party in the nation's third most populous state. Democrats here have the unhappy choice of turning their backs on their first president in 12 years or, alternatively, trying to ignore national issues almost entirely.
A year ago the election of "a different kind of Democrat" seemed to offer the party the great promise of halting erosion among Democrats in the South who had been off the reservation voting twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George Bush. Bill Clinton seemed to be a Democrat who, like Gov. Ann Richards here, could combine a moderate position on most social issues and a progressive approach to education with conservatism on fiscal questions.
Richards, moreover, seemed to be filling that same prescription when she chose Krueger, a state railroad commissioner, to fill the Senate seat temporarily. There were visions of the popular new president coming into the state to exhort Democratic regulars to keep Lloyd Bentsen's seat in the party's hands. Instead, to whatever degree Krueger is seen as compatible with Clinton, the appointed senator is carrying a heavy political burden.
In the long run, whether or not a Krueger defeat here is seen as a referendum on Clinton isn't likely to have any direct practical impact on the president's ability to succeed in the White House -- other than, of course, whatever he suffers by losing another vote in the Senate.
But the indirect effects can be extremely threatening to the president. It would be no surprise if Democrats in the Senate and House were increasingly emboldened to follow their own course when the White House can do so little for them.
This election may not be a referendum on Bill Clinton but it is one in which he clearly has a stake.