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State’s 29 Electoral Votes Pivotal : Candidates Focus Appeals Deep in the Heart of Texas

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan knew what 2,500 Texas Republicans, who anted up more than $3 million for the GOP at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Thursday night, had come to hear:

“Do we want a future that continues and expands on the policies that have brought America back and standing tall, a future that rests on the bedrock principles we all hold dear?” Reagan asked. “Or do we want a future that seems like a depressing rerun of the years of malaise?”

Vice President George Bush, introduced by Reagan as “my favorite Texan,” proclaimed: “The differences between me and the governor of Massachusetts couldn’t be more clear. I am the one with the Texas values.”

Outside on the convention center lawn, Democrats were having their own party. Former Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong led around a confused-looking pack of bloodhounds on what he claimed was a hunt for any tracks the vice president might have left in Texas the past eight years.

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“We’ve heard enough baloney about Bush being a Texas resident,” Armstrong said. “Where was he when we needed him? . . . four out of five drilling rigs went out of operation since George Bush became vice president, costing us over 200,000 energy-related jobs, over 23,000 business failures and almost 200 bank closings. And where was George?”

Those scenes hold the messages that the two parties are trying to get across here, in what has become one of the most pivotal struggles of the 1988 election. By his bold choice of popular Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, Michael S. Dukakis has given his party a fighting chance for the state’s 29 electoral votes.

Symbolically, the stakes are even higher. Democrats have not made it to the White House in this century without winning Texas. For Republicans, Texas stands as a crucial test of how well the gains they have made over the past eight years will endure once the charismatic Reagan passes from the political scene.

“If there ever was a must state in a presidential election, it is Texas in 1988,” said Bush campaign chairman James A. Baker III, himself a Texan.

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Polls show the race is a tight one, with a slight edge for Bush, who is counting heavily on his background as a Texas oil man and congressman to help him. He ran an oil drilling company in the 1950s and ‘60s and was a two-term congressman from Houston.

But Democrats waste few opportunities to point out that although Bush is legally a Texas resident, his voting address is a Houston hotel. Compared to a genuine article like Bentsen, they say, Bush is merely the type of tough-talking pretender dismissed in this state as “all hat and no cattle.”

Unpredictable Blocs

The outcome is likely to be determined by two large, but unpredictable blocs of voters. One is the conservative Democrats who defected to Reagan in the past two elections. Houston-based GOP consultant Lance Tarrance estimates that these ticket-splitters, who are concentrated in East Texas, compose around 16% of the electorate. “This group is really where the game is going to be won or lost,” he said.

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The other group is Latinos, who make up about 14% of the state’s registered voters, but who failed to show up in force in the past two presidential elections. Dukakis expects to receive between 70% and 80% of their vote, and a large turnout of 55% or more could decide a close race in his favor, said Robert R. Brischetto of the Southwest Voter Research Institute.

Local leaders, however, say Latinos are unenthused about how the race is shaping up this fall.

“At this point, there are a lot of people who are apathetic, and somewhat disgusted with the lack of vision by either of the candidates,” said Father Rosendo Urrabazo, co-chairman of Communities Organized for Public Service, an influential Latino organization in South Texas. “We’re trying to get people to vote, but the word on the street is: ‘What for? It’s all the same.’ ”

Negative Campaigning

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Worried Democrats see other signs that the Dukakis campaign is headed for trouble here. They say the Massachusetts governor has thus far failed to get a clear message across, allowing voters’ perceptions to be shaped instead by a barrage of negative campaigning by Bush.

In a recent poll by the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News, 40% rated Dukakis unfavorably--compared to only 20% responding that way as recently as July. Bush’s assaults “doubled Dukakis’ negatives, which is not difficult to do with a candidate who is not well known,” said Richard Murray, the University of Houston political scientist who conducted the poll.

Many Democrats say Dukakis’ failure to respond vigorously here to Bush’s attacks on such gut issues as the Pledge of Allegiance, military spending and gun control may be blamed on his young campaign organization, many members of whom came from out of state.

One well-connected Democrat, speaking on the condition he not be identified, sniped: “The Duke’s people are truly like pork pies at a Bar Mitzvah down here.”

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One of Bentsen’s longtime political associates summed up his frustration with the Dukakis camp by recalling what legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said of John F. Kennedy’s political team: “They may be just as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a hell of a lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff.”

But Kennedy won Texas, and Dukakis forces express confidence that they too can pull off a victory in the weeks that remain. Democrats are taking heart from the new toughness they are hearing in Dukakis’ tone.

“Sam Rayburn knew that when you fight for the real people, the other side will attack your patriotism,” Dukakis told a crowd in the East Texas town of Commerce a few weeks ago. “Even a conservative can smell garbage in his front yard.”

Democrats here also were delighted to see how quickly Dukakis produced an endorsement from a Texas law enforcement association Thursday to counter the support Bush won from a Boston police union.

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Still, Republicans are gloating over what they see as a series of missteps. “They assumed that this pledge issue (Dukakis’ veto of a bill making it mandatory in Massachusetts classrooms) was a thin gruel, and it wasn’t,” chortled Karl Rove, an Austin-based political consultant who is advising the Bush campaign. “It signals (Dukakis) is some kind of far-out liberal, and not our kind of guy in Texas.”

Bush’s Texas campaign hit the issue again in recent days in a flyer mailed to 300,000 conservative Democrats. “Here are the words Dukakis doesn’t want your child to have to say,” it warned. Inside was a picture of two children reciting the pledge.

Dukakis is struggling to bring the focus of the debate back to the Texas economy, which is the issue on which he believes he runs strongest here.

“We don’t need any more speeches about the flag. We need a President and a vice president who are concerned about America’s energy future,” Dukakis told a group of Houston oil producers last Monday. “Lloyd Bentsen and I are not going to leave oil-patch communities twisting in the wind.”

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One Democratic television ad running statewide shows a vacant vice president’s desk, and a ringing telephone.

Democrats are betting that the hard times of the past six years have shaken Texans’ belief in the Republican credo that they get along best when Washington leaves them alone.

“They want a government that’s going to act on problems and solve them,” said Tom Cosgrove, who is managing Dukakis’ Texas campaign. The Massachusetts experience, he added, has proven that Dukakis is “innovative and creative in bringing programs that do not cost a lot of money, but solve the problems.”

However, one recent statewide survey indicates that message has yet to sink in. Fully 55% of those responding to Texas A&M; University’s Texas Poll in late August and early September said they believed Bush would do the better job handling the economy, compared to only 30% feeling more confident about Dukakis.

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Economic Vigor

Bush’s campaign also claims that new signs of economic vigor are working to their political advantage.

“The Texas economy is in a recovery. I wouldn’t expect Michael Dukakis or the people he sent down from Massachusetts to know that, because they don’t know anything about Texas,” said Reggie Bashur, Bush’s deputy campaign director here. “Do you want to risk a gradual recovery with a flaming liberal in the White House who will return the Jimmy Carter economic policies?”

While they argue over the effects the state’s economy will have on the race, both sides agree that Dukakis has one big advantage: the fact that he is sharing the ticket with Bentsen, who was rated Texas’ most well-liked politician in one recent poll.

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Socially Acceptable

“Bentsen made it socially acceptable to be for the ticket,” said George Christian, an Austin-based Democratic political consultant who was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary. Rove put it another way: “If Dukakis were not standing on Lloyd Bentsen’s tall shoulders, he’d be sinking like a stone.”

Bentsen’s connections have helped Dukakis win endorsements from such prominent business leaders as Ben Love, chairman of Texas Commerce Bancshares, the state’s third-largest bank holding company. Local Democratic officials who often found excuses to be out of town if Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale were headed their way in 1984 have no qualms about being seen with the man who tapped Bentsen for a running mate.

Even as Bentsen stumps for Dukakis--roughly one-fourth of his time is being spent in Texas--he also is running a well-financed campaign against a little-known GOP opponent for his Senate seat.

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Public Consumption

For public consumption, Republicans are loudly protesting Bentsen’s dual campaigns, which are legal under a Texas law passed when Lyndon Johnson was in Bentsen’s spot. However, behind the scenes, they are quietly promoting the idea that Texans can hedge their bets by supporting Bush for President and helping Bentsen maintain his powerful post as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Republicans insist that Bentsen cannot win the state for Dukakis. “We in Texas are not dumbbells,” Gov. Bill Clements insisted in an interview. “We know the difference between electing a President and electing a vice president.”

Times researcher Rhona Schwartz contributed to this story.

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Battleground: Texas

Electoral votes: 29

Population (1987 est.): 16.9 million

Registered voters (July, 1988): 7.96 million--approximately 74% Anglo, 14% Latino, 11% black, 1% other.

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Past presidential elections: Except for 1968, Texas has gone for the winner in every presidential election in more than 50 years.

1960--Kennedy (D) 50%, Nixon (R) 48%

1964--Johnson (D) 63%, Goldwater (R) 36%

1968--Humphrey (D) 41%, Nixon (R) 40%, Wallace 19%

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1972--Nixon (R) 66%, McGovern (D) 33%

1976--Carter (D) 51%, Ford (R) 48%

1980--Reagan (R) 55%, Carter (D) 41%

1984--Reagan (R) 64%, Mondale (D) 36%

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Sources: Southwwest Voter Research Institute, Donnelly Demographics, The Almanac of American Politics


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