Rising GOP tide in Texas may wash out Democrats



WASHINGTON -- Two years ago the managers of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign were faced with a decision on how much effort to make to win the 32 electoral votes of Texas.

On paper, it looked feasible. The opinion polls showed Clinton within range of George Bush because of concern over the economy. Top-drawer Democratic strategists were ready to direct the campaign. The popular Gov. Ann Richards was prepared to help. There was the realistic prospect of enough money. And, of course, the prize was a rich one -- electoral votes without which the Republican president probably could not be re-elected.

In the end, however, the Clinton strategists decided Texas was just too tough for a Democrat running for president these days, a state trending inexorably toward Republicanism.

It was a wise decision. In the past decade the most striking change in Texas politics has been the willingness of conservative Yellow Dog Democrats -- those people so Democratic they would "vote for any old yellow dog rather than a Republican" -- to support Republicans in state and local as well as presidential elections.

Now, with the bizarre acquittal of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, that trend is likely to be accelerated. Although the first rule of politics is never say never, it is fair to say that the smart money now supports the thesis the Republican senator will win re-election in a walk in November. The operative question is whether her position at the top of the Republican ticket will bring an outpouring of support that might threaten Richards as well.

Hutchison already has shown formidable strength. When Lloyd Bentsen surrendered his Senate seat to become secretary of the Treasury, she won a special election last June by defeating Democrat Bob Krueger two-to-one.

Moreover, the charges against her -- that she used her office as state treasurer for political activity and then destroyed records to cover it up -- were always seen by many as politically inspired. Some professionals in both parties believed she might have won re-election even if convicted so long as she escaped a prison term.

The shape of the campaign will be determined to some degree, of course, by the Democratic nominee chosen in the party primary March 8. The favorite at the moment is former state attorney general Jim Mattox, a freewheeling populist with a reputation as a political loose cannon but with obvious appeal to minority voters and some courthouse Democrats. His prime competitor is Rep. Mike Andrews, a more centrist Democrat in the mold of Bentsen but one lacking a statewide identification.

On paper, Richards' situation looks far more promising. Opinion polls show her still getting high marks from Texas voters. The economy is improving, always a benefit to incumbents. She still has a special connection with women voters because of her support for abortion rights and to others because of her colorful style.

But it is also true that Richards was elected in 1990 in some measure because of the political self-immolation of her Republican opponent in that campaign, rancher-entrepreneur Clayton Williams. It was far more a personal triumph for Richards than an endorsement of Democratic liberalism.

Her likely opponent, George W. Bush, is an unknown quantity. The former president's eldest son is president of the Texas Rangers baseball team and well-established in both business and political circles in the state. In many ways he fits the mold of Republicans who are having so much success in the Sun Belt by winning heavily among suburban voters around the major cities. But he is unproven as a campaigner, and there are still months in which he must show he can withstand the pressures of a campaign.

By November the abortive attempt to prosecute Kay Hutchison may be forgotten by many voters. And both Senate and gubernatorial candidates will be obliged to deal with a wide range of complex issues. But the movement toward the Republican Party in Texas is a tide that will be more difficult than ever for Democrats to turn back.

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