Point Austin: Happy Valentines!
Prepare to be seriously wooed by the Dems
A few weeks ago, Texas voters had reason to feel alone and unwanted this primary-election season. In the wake of both the frog-jumping early primaries and Super Tuesday only 10 days ago, the national media consensus was that by the time the campaigns got around to the Lone Star State, the frontrunners would barely have time or reason to blow us a passing kiss. So much for Super-latives – the race may indeed be all but over on the worn-out GOP side, but Texans and Austinites can expect to get plenty of tender, romantic attention over the next month from the Democratic suitors, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Garry Mauro, former land commissioner and gubernatorial candidate and Clinton's Texas campaign manager, commented wryly this week that as "a student of the process" he never put much store in pundit predictions that the Democratic race would be won prior to reaching Texas because "mathematically – if you can count – there was no way a candidate could reach the necessary number of delegates."
Mauro was in an expansive mood as the campaigns moved to Texas and acknowledged that with the delegate count still so close, the Texas race has become "a little more serious now." Mauro and the Clintons go back more than 30 years, to 1972, when they were young Democratic organizers working in Texas voter-registration campaigns. "Hillary has long-term roots here," Mauro said, "and friends and relationships going back 30 years. That's going to make the difference for her in Texas."
The early polls show Clinton "comfortably ahead" in Texas, said Mauro, and that's despite what he calls the "soft press" provided to Obama thus far. In early February she was polling roughly 48% to Obama's 38% (with 10% undecided), although that's likely to tighten as primary day nears and the two begin spending serious time and money here. Nationwide, said Mauro, Obama has been winning the "Starbucks latte" voters and Clinton the "Dunkin' Donuts" voters – that is, Obama's demographics trend upper-middle-class, and Clinton's are more working-class, although with exceptions, especially among African-Americans (strongly Obama), women over 40 (strongly Clinton), and Hispanics (strongly Clinton, although that has tightened a bit).
Mauro says he's been impressed by the Obama campaign's ability to bring people out in the caucus states, "but that hasn't translated into votes at the polls. ... When is he going to carry a large, diverse state with a broad-base vote?" He pointed particularly to Clinton's victories in Massachusetts and California, where she also carried the under-30 vote – supposedly the exclusive province of Obama.
Make what you will of Mauro's prognostications, it's refreshing for Texans to be the subjects of such high-intensity campaign spin – call it political seduction – once again. The courtship began this week with high-profile endorsements. Clinton picked up venerable former West Texas Rep. Charlie Stenholm, and Obama corralled San Antonio Rep. Charlie Gonzalez and influential Alpine state Rep. Pete Gallego. Of more note to Austinites, former Austin mayor and current state Sen. Kirk Watson also endorsed Obama. Endorsement statements are inevitably flowery billets-doux, and Watson has echoed the Obama campaign's dominant rhetoric: change and hope. "Senator Obama is focused on possibilities, not politics. He offers solutions that will unify our country and lead us into the future. Perhaps most of all, he knows that hope matters."
Asked what had made him jump the broom with Obama, Watson told me: "I really do believe that leadership is supposed to reveal and develop our opportunities as a people and a country, and over the past several years, we have instead had leadership that wants us to lose sight of what we share together. ... The country is poised to make a significant change that cuts across divisions and labels, and Obama really embodies that change."
In practical terms, Watson said he has been "extremely impressed with the troop level and effort and intellect" that the Obama campaign has already put on the ground in Texas. He said many people who had given up or lost interest in politics have been coming up to him to ask about precinct conventions and similar matters, and he expects both the primary vote and the precinct activity to be very high. "This is one of the best times to be a Democrat in my lifetime," Watson said. "We've got two candidates that we can be really proud of and a really tough choice to make, but a good choice to have."
Stars Over Texas
Watson acknowledged the demographic nuances that are inevitably the subject of political campaigns but believes Obama's greatest strength has been his ability to reach across boundaries and upset expectations. "It's understandable to be counting votes," he said, "but we shouldn't get into the habit of dividing people up as has already been done too much over the last 10 years." For a long-forlorn Texas Democrat like himself, he said, "This year it's like Christmas is coming March 4, and every day leading up to then, there's a new present under the tree."
Mauro, for his part, is hardly ready to concede that the Obama campaign has a monopoly on hope and vision. "My personal opinion is that the Obama campaign is going to implode in the next six weeks," he said, because its grand rhetoric is insufficiently grounded in practical politics. "And we're not conceding Travis County or young progressive voters [to Obama]," Mauro said. "We're going to be going door-to-door, trench-to-trench, looking for every vote."
Asked if he thinks the new generation of Obama supporters may be expecting more from their candidate than government and politics can actually deliver, Watson responded fervently: "Politics has to be about something you can believe in, that can provide hope for opportunity down the road. We've had so much negative power politics over the last decade – if some people now have stars in their eyes, more power to 'em. It's about damn time."