Tony and Dan Go Mano a... Hand?

Dem gubernatorial debate less than meets the eye

The most newsworthy aspect of the Friday night debates between Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales was what happened the day before: Morales gave back to Sanchez whatever advantage he had gained by Sanchez's preliminary waffling over having the debates at all. On the eve of the English and Spanish debates, Morales announced that he objected to the Spanish debate because it would "elevate Spanish to the same level as English." Over the objections of the debate organizers, Morales said he would speak first in Spanish, then in English -- because the Spanish debate was effectively a Sanchez attempt to "drive a wedge" between Texans.

Morales' sudden reversal overshadowed the substance of the debates themselves, and gave thunder to Sanchez's charges (in English and Spanish) that Morales is "ashamed to be Hispanic" and had "slapped seven million Hispanic Texans in the face" by his decision. Asked by a panelist if his denigration of Spanish was an attempt to "pander" to conservative Anglo voters, Morales denied it. But his move was difficult to read as anything other than a run to the right, in the dubious hopes that he can find among conservative white Democrats the votes he appears to have ceded to Sanchez among Hispanics. In the aftermath, most of the pundits saw it that way, even the Statesman's Arnold Garcia -- hardly a firebrand of chicanismo. On Sunday, Garcia compared Morales' position to that of California's unlamented former Gov. Pete Wilson, who failed dismally in his attempt to extend his career by appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment among California voters.

Beyond that -- including a flurry of exchanges about the debate over the debate -- the confrontation did little to alter the images the two candidates have established in the campaign since January. Morales attacked Sanchez's business record, and Sanchez exploited the recent headlines about Morales' work for SBC Communications, also suggesting that the cloud cast over Morales by the continuing federal investigation of the tobacco litigation would not dissipate by the fall: "He cannot assure us he will not be indicted."

Sanchez seemed less adept on policy matters, especially in his insistence that he can "scrub the budget" for "waste and inefficiencies" before even beginning a discussion of taxes (a luxury of contemplation the state's part-time Legislature can scarce afford). Pressed by Paul Burka of Texas Monthly to name a single program where the "waste and inefficiencies" might be found, Sanchez could only offer that too much of educational funds go into administration, too little into the classroom. Even if that is true, it is difficult to imagine how the new governor or even the legislative budget can have much affect on the relative priorities of the state's school districts. It is the sort of nuts-and-bolts administrative problem, central to state government, sidestepped by Sanchez's posture of being a "businessman, not a professional politician." Sanchez is hardly the first Texas politician to score points by running against politics, but on that score, Morales' defense of public service was more persuasive.

Did Morales get the home run he needs to overtake Sanchez? Unlikely -- and in a Democratic primary match, he surprisingly staked out the English-only territory he currently needs least. As for Sanchez, he was bilingually adept and self-assured, and he didn't make any glaringly amateurish fumbles that might derail him as the campaign enters its last two weeks. Barring some last-minute surprise, it would appear Tony Sanchez holds the inside track for the Democratic nomination.

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