Dream Team or Bad Dream?

Democrats sift pre-election portents for the answer

The political electricity got stuck on low voltage as the Texas Dream Team mounted a riser in front of Houston City Hall for a pre-election rally. After suffering through the B-52's "Love Shack" on a tinny amplifier, a small crowd of maybe 200 -- most of them kids or political operatives and officials -- beat their palms and cheered on a sunny Sunday afternoon as one member after another of the statewide Democratic slate took a turn at the mike.

Although the event was supposed to be a showcase for statewide candidates, ubiquitous Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Leepopped out of nowhere clad in an eye-catching red tunic suit. She beelined to the stage and shoehorned herself so snugly between gubernatorial hopeful Tony Sanchez and lieutenant governor candidate John Sharpthat her head appeared to be growing out of their shoulders. In a rare act of restraint, she did not attempt to address the crowd, perhaps mindful of the negative press she garnered recently while upstaging the Queen of Thailand at a Houston dinner.

The rally marked the kickoff of early voting, and what started as a theory co-authored by former Texas comptroller Sharp will soon face the test of the ballot box.

Can a perfectly balanced Democratic ticket -- one appealing to each of the state's major ethnic groups and utilizing the unique assets of the top three candidates -- break the GOP's lock on the Lone Star State?

There are tantalizing portents pointing in both directions. Recent polls indicate a Republican victory, but early balloting figures measure heavy Democratic seismic activity in South Texas and the big cities.

Banker Sanchez may be about as exciting on the stump as cold oatmeal, but the estimated $57 million he contributed to his own campaign is fueling the get-out-the-vote vans and a wave of early balloting in Hispanic strongholds around the state. If nothing else, the TV ad attacks and awkward debates between Sanchez and Governor Rick Perry serve up a reminder that neither measures up in polish or popularity to the predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Mediagenic former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk has performed well in his televised debates with state Attorney General John Cornyn, his opponent in the U.S. Senate race. More important, Kirk has galvanized African-American supporters in the ballot-rich inner cities of Dallas and Houston. Even as a sacrificial lamb, his campaign could tip down ballot races in Harris and Dallas counties to the Dems.

Sharp is running to the right of his two ticket partners, using a political machine built on the patronage of his former state office while putting Republican supporters like baseball great Nolan Ryan on the airwaves to describe him as "conservative." It's a label few Texas Democrats have embraced since the ascendancy of the party's liberal wing paralleled the defection of conservative Dems to the Republicans over the last two decades. Sharp is also blessed with an opponent Republicans love to diss behind his back: martinet Land Commissioner David Dewhurst.

So how will it all sort out?

Recent media reports seized on the relatively low number of newly registered Texas voters with Spanish surnames -- they were up only 170,000 over last year. That was viewed as a sign that both the Sanchez campaign and a registration drive spearheaded by former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros were sputtering. A Dallas Morning News poll showed both Sanchez and Kirk trailing their Republican counterparts by double-digit margins, while Sharp was locked in a dead heat with Dewhurst.

Some experts believe the polls are suspect because of the difficulty in measuring new voters who are expected to be churned up by the first black and brown candidates at the top of a state ticket.

"Minorities are more likely to tell you they are undecided," notes Dr. Richard Murray, director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston. "So the Anglo candidates, who in this case are Republican, probably poll better than they actually run." He points to one survey showing that 11 percent of Texas blacks are undecided in the Kirk-Cornyn race, when in fact the Democrat is likely to get more than 95 percent of that group's ballots.

Early voting figures compiled by the Texas Secretary of State's office offer better tidings for Democrats. Voting is up across the state in heavily Hispanic counties. San Antonio's Bexar County so far (as of October 22) leads the state in the number of in-person early votes, even though it has fewer than half the number of registered voters of Harris County and nearly 400,000 fewer than Dallas County.

Early vote in Harris County communities was up across the board last week, with polling places in Hispanic neighborhoods showing big increases. More people voted in the first two days at Moody Park than in the entire early voting period in the last election, according to observers.

Democratic strategists say the attention accorded the relatively low new voter figures misses the point of the Democratic game plan: to maximize the turnout of previously registered Hispanics and other party constituencies.

"True enough, there haven't been a hell of a lot of Hispanic registrants," admits Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies. "But we decided early on that we had about a million Hispanic registered voters who had never cast a ballot, and that we were a lot better off spending our money trying to get them to vote rather than going and finding people who were not registered but were citizens."

According to McClung, "There's plenty of target. I don't think we're going to turn the world upside down, but I think we're in the range to win some elections. And it's going to be largely because we got a better turnout in the Hispanic world."

The benchmark Democrats are counting on is the 1998 midterm election results, when Democrat Paul Hobby came within 20,000 votes of defeating Carole Keeton Rylander for comptroller and Sharp lost to Perry in the lieutenant governor contest by 70,000. Democratic strategists believe an uptick in the Hispanic vote by as little as 5 percent can make the latest statewide contests winnable.

Houston State Rep Garnet Coleman is the Harris County chair of Team Texas, the coordinated Democratic campaign. He estimates more than $500,000 will be spent -- much of it Sanchez money -- on early voting and community outreach efforts in the Houston area. One aim is to reach likely Democratic voters who live outside traditional ethnic communities.

"The difference is looking at infrequent voters who have not been touched by a campaign physically," explains Coleman. "They watch TV, listen to the radio and are energized by the media. That's something we've changed across the board in our field programs: reaching into the new Houston."

Election Day get-out-the-vote techniques that helped Mayor Lee Brown edge out Orlando Sanchez in last year's mayoral runoff also will be employed for the first time in a midterm election here. Rows of gassed-up white vans, similar to the armada that scoured the city for Brown, sit in a parking lot on downtown's east side, awaiting deployment.

"A lot of what was done in the Brown effort is being done now, everything from door-to-door to vans and sound systems," says consultant Marc Campos, who is handling logistics for the effort. "I've been around Democratic Party general elections since 1972, and I've never seen anything like this."

All of which makes the stakes riding on the Dream Team that much higher. If Democrats have nothing to show for all that effort and organization on Tuesday night, it's going to be awfully difficult to find future candidates who'll throw away their treasure running under the party banner. Even if Sharp wins his race, there's likely to be the suspicion among minorities that they got used by an Anglo who really ran as Republican Lite.

Democratic consultant and lobbyist George Strongopines that the Dream Team will go down in history as a success if the party maintains its control of the state House speakership, Sharp becomes lieutenant governor and some down-ballot races go to the Democrats. He agrees even those results might leave a residue of bitterness among Hispanic and black organizers.

"They'll say, 'Hey, we did our part, what happened to the yellow dogs?' " says Strong, using a term referring to the blue-collar Anglo wing of the party.

Our election night advice: Pick your victory party itinerary carefully, and please don't mix the antidepressants with the champagne.

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