Primary Stretch Run

Senate candidates look toward the April 9 run-off; gubernatorial contenders look to November.

First things first: Victor Morales, not Ron Kirk, is the official "frontrunner" in the Democratic primary run-off for U.S. Senate. Last week the Chronicle -- along with nearly every publication in the state -- had that wrong, because a computer error in Denton County had allotted 1,200 votes to perennial candidate Gene Kelly (now that would be an upset) instead of Morales. So Kirk went from trailing by 1,500 votes, to leading by 253 votes (after a party canvass) to trailing again, by 996 votes.

The error was less significant than Morales' response to it; he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "I don't trust these people [the party leadership]. It's no secret that the so-called powers-that-be are lined up behind Ron Kirk." The thought of a state party conspiracy centered in Denton County seems a bit of a stretch -- but no more so than the notion that if Morales pulls off this upset, it will be the same party leadership he will have to rely on in his general election run against the GOP candidate, Attorney General John Cornyn.

Last week the Democratic Senate candidates held the first of two scheduled debates, and contrary to persistent reports, they did not agree on absolutely everything. They concurred on support for the Clean Air Act, and both objected to using opposition to abortion as a litmus test in appointing federal judges. Unsurprisingly, Morales is more enthusiastic about campaign finance reform than Kirk, who has said the low federal limits on "hard money" contributions are unrealistic in large states like Texas. And Kirk was more forthcoming than Morales on defending Social Security, saying he opposes privatization; Morales would subject such proposals to "more study."

In what was probably their sharpest disagreement, Morales said he would have voted for the recently failed federal legislation to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles, especially SUVs. Kirk -- aligning himself with Senate Dems from auto-industry (i.e., solid AFL-CIO) states that effectively scuttled the legislation by joining anti-environmentalist Republicans -- said he would have opposed the law. The candidates were initially circumspect on the Middle East and war with Iraq -- calling for more "study" and "discussion" -- although Morales suddenly declared, "I'd like to see us take out Saddam Hussein."

The street buzz on the April 9 run-off continues to rest on "turnout." Will Kirk, with an overwhelming advantage in money, be able to overcome Morales' name recognition as well as down-ballot run-offs in the Valley (already garnering decent numbers in early voting)? Or can Morales, without funds for media buys, still confound the party leadership, the pundits, and nearly every major endorsing Democratic organization and upset the Democratic apple cart once again?


Call Me a Doctor

Although in theory it's way too soon to be fussing over the general election, Gov. Rick Perry has begun to use the bully pulpit to spread his campaign themes. Following up his earlier announcement of his "Trans Texas Corridor" plan to web the state with major highways, last week Perry appeared at San Antonio's Jefferson High School to announce a "dropout prevention" plan that would include more counselors, a new division in the Texas Education Agency, and various other programs to be paid for with federal funds provided by the recently enacted "No Child Left Behind" Act. The highway plan would cost beaucoup bucks (mostly billions in bonded indebtedness made possible by last year's Lege); the education plan would be "free" -- all the money is presumably federal.

Perry also said he would wait to see Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff's much-anticipated state property tax proposal for public schools (to be revealed this week) before responding to it. "I'm watching it go up the flagpole," he told the San Antonio Express-News.

On Wednesday, the governor picked up the endorsement of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (C.L.E.A.T.), a move described as "the first time in the organization's history that it has endorsed a Republican gubernatorial candidate." President Ron DeLord called Perry a "law and order governor," and said Democratic candidate Tony Sanchez had called for cutting the prison budget "in half." (During a speech earlier this year, the Dem candidate had suggested taking "half" of what we spend on prisons and using it for education, but he has made no formal budget proposal.)

The C.L.E.A.T. endorsement was overshadowed this week, however, by the surprising defection of a group of influential doctors with long ties to the GOP and Perry. The doctors, associated with the Texas Medical Association, remain angry that Perry vetoed HB 1862 -- the so-called "prompt pay" legislation -- apparently at the last-minute request of the tort-reform PAC, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and of lobbyists for HMOs, who objected to one provision in the bill. The doctors say Perry's veto reneged on a compromise solution suggested by the TMA and reportedly agreed to by the governor and his staff. TMA members were further incensed after a March 15 meeting at the Mansion, when they say Perry claimed not to have known about the compromise at all. (TMA endorsed Sanchez in the Democratic primary, but has not yet issued an endorsement for the general election.) Longview physician and longtime GOP activist John Coppedge (who resigned as Perry's East Texas campaign finance chairman following the veto) and four other doctors sent a letter to 37,000 Texas physicians -- accompanied by a letter to Perry attacking his veto -- saying that this go round, they will support Sanchez. "We believe Governor Tony Sanchez would not ambush us by a veto," the doctors wrote, "but afford us the opportunity to resolve any differences long before our legislation reached his desk. It is far more likely he would be fighting alongside us, not surprising us at the 11th hour." (The doctors' letters are posted on the Sanchez campaign Web site: www.tonysanchez.com. Dr. John Coppedge's detailed and illuminating history of the backroom negotiations over the prompt-pay legislation is posted on the Texans for Public Justice "Lobby Watch" Web site: www.tpj.org/Lobby_Watch/coppedge.html .)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Victor Morales, Ron Kirk, primary elections, Gene Kelly, U.S. Senate, Rick Perry, Tony Sanchez, Texas Medical Association, No Child Left Behind, Bill Ratliff, C.L.E.A.T., Ron DeLord, John Coppedge, Texans for Lawsuit Reform

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