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Pieces of Texas Turn Primary Into a Puzzle

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/us/politics/26texas.html?em&ex=1204174800&en=82be0bd35790644e&ei=5087%0A Pieces of Texas Turn Primary Into a Puzzle By RANDY
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 26, 2008
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/us/politics/26texas.html?em&ex=1204174800&en=82be0bd35790644e&ei=5087%0A

      Pieces of Texas Turn Primary Into a Puzzle

      By RANDY KENNEDY
      Published: February 26, 2008

      CRAWFORD, Tex. — When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton
      issued her gunslinger’s invitation to Senator Barack
      Obama recently, challenging him to “meet me in Texas,”
      the question many people here asked was, Which one?

      The frontier-conservative Texas of Amarillo, in the
      Panhandle, where former President Bill Clinton stumped
      for his wife this month, sharing the civic center with
      the annual gun show? The vast, immigrant-heavy Texas
      of Houston, where more than 100 languages are spoken
      in the city’s schools?

      Maybe the one of East Texas, with its Deep South
      ethos, a region one Democratic consultant described as
      being more like Mississippi than Texas? Or the
      profoundly unpredictable one found here, in the
      central part of the state, among the most heavily
      Republican areas in the country (and home to President
      Bush’s ranch), yet represented in Congress by Chet
      Edwards, a well-liked Democrat who recently endorsed
      Mr. Obama?

      “It’s like running a national campaign,” said one
      veteran Texas Democrat, Garry Mauro, state director
      for Mrs. Clinton. “There are no similarities between
      Amarillo and Brownsville and Beaumont and Texarkana
      and El Paso and Austin and Houston and Dallas. These
      are very separate demographic groups with very diverse
      interests.”

      In a 1968 essay, Larry McMurtry wrote that Texas was
      divided but “not yet fragmented to a degree that would
      raise difficulties for the novelist.” Forty years
      later, you could sympathize with the writer, but you
      should feel really sorry for the presidential
      candidate, trying to make sense of a state as large as
      New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North
      Carolina combined, and probably even more diverse.

      With recent polls showing that Mr. Obama has cut
      deeply into Mrs. Clinton’s lead in Texas, or even
      erased it, the state has become a political
      battleground to a degree not witnessed in a
      generation. And the rapidly mounting fight has
      reminded national political strategists yet again of
      Texas’ strange largeness — or large strangeness — a
      state that Congress decided in 1845, the year it
      joined the Union, might well be later divided into
      four more states should it consent.

      That provision stemmed from the debate over slavery,
      but it was an acknowledgment of the state’s unwieldy
      size and stark geographical differences, from prairie
      towns with plainly descriptive names like Notrees and
      Levelland to the swamps and cypress forests of the Big
      Thicket National Preserve in the southeast to coastal
      towns like Galveston, with old Victorian neighborhoods
      reminiscent of San Francisco.

      “Five Texases is about right, maybe a couple more,”
      said A. R. Schwartz, known as Babe, a Democrat who
      represented much of the Texas coast, including
      Galveston, in the Legislature for a quarter-century.
      “You could say they’re just physical differences, but
      they do create differences in the people.”

      Even within each region, the campaign calculus can be
      treacherous.

      “My senatorial district was a nightmare,” said Mr.
      Schwartz, who now works as a lobbyist, describing how
      he courted coalitions of voters in both densely urban
      and extremely rural areas, home to family farms and
      massive oil refineries, with large Hispanic and
      African-American populations and even a small Jewish
      one, to which he belonged. “And then you didn’t forget
      to think about whether you were talking to a Baptist
      or a Catholic,” he said.

      Laid on top of the complicated statewide map, 790
      miles long and 660 miles wide at its farthest points,
      there are others, like the one — studied with
      scientific precision now by both campaigns — that
      divides Texas into 31 primary-election districts and
      apportions delegates according to a formula based on
      the Democratic voter turnout in those districts in the
      2004 presidential election and the 2006 election for
      governor.

      The higher the turnout in a district, the more
      delegates it has to offer, meaning that urban areas
      like Austin — where Mr. Obama has been received in
      recent days with the kind of fervor usually accorded
      only Willie Nelson — will award a large number. The
      Austin district has eight delegates at stake, while
      the district that includes Brownsville, a heavily
      Hispanic area in which Mrs. Clinton has deep roots as
      a Democratic organizer, will award only three.

      “We have grown men crying over it,” Mrs. Clinton said
      recently of the byzantine rules of the system, which
      also includes caucuses, leading people here to refer
      to March 4 as “primacaucus night” or “the Texas
      two-step.”

      Texas is also separated into 20 media markets, among
      the most of any state in the country, with the added
      necessity of buying advertisements in Oklahoma and
      Louisiana if you want to cover every corner of it.
      Representative Edwards said that to reach all the
      voters in his long, irregularly shaped district, he
      would need to buy air time in five markets.

      “I spent $3 million in each of my last two campaigns,
      and I didn’t even buy media in Houston and Dallas in
      those campaigns,” said Mr. Edwards, whose recent
      endorsement of Mr. Obama is seen as significant here
      because Mr. Edwards is viewed as a coalition builder
      able to survive in a place where Democrats are few and
      far between.

      One of them is Ben Kerr, 66, a medical clinic
      administrator in Waco who was eating lunch there
      Friday at a venerable old diner that serves Tater
      Tots, shakes and dripping burgers but is incongruously
      called the Health Camp. Mr. Kerr described living for
      many years east of Houston in Port Arthur, which he
      said many people considered the true capital of
      Louisiana because of its Cajun population. But he now
      considers himself a man of Central Texas, and as part
      of a smaller area around Waco with a deeply
      independent bent.

      He said he had not yet decided between Mrs. Clinton
      and Mr. Obama but was leaning that morning, after
      watching their debate the night before, slightly
      toward Mr. Obama. “Change sounds good,” he said.
      “Washington is just a mess.”

      “Maybe Hillary has too much experience,” he added.
      “Maybe she’s been up there too long.”

      Juan Rodriguez, a Crawford-area ranch worker who grew
      up near Acapulco but has lived in Texas for more than
      20 years, is a good example of the area’s
      unpredictability for the campaigns. He is 38 and by
      conventional wisdom should probably support Mrs.
      Clinton, who has the backing of many influential
      Hispanic politicians in the state. But as he gassed up
      his pickup, Mr. Rodriguez said he would vote for Mr.
      Obama, explaining that he found him more knowledgeable
      and more trustworthy on immigration issues.

      Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at
      the University of Texas, said that the state had
      always been a complicated, counterintuitive place to
      campaign but that as populations and allegiances
      shifted — more Hispanic voters concentrating in urban
      areas, for example, reducing their influence in the
      Rio Grande Valley — the regional differences had
      become even trickier.

      “Some people have wondered, for example, why Hillary
      has gone to El Paso, which is 75 percent Hispanic, and
      not spent more of her time elsewhere,” maybe in bigger
      urban areas trying to fight for votes there, Dr.
      Buchanan said. “She and her team didn’t see it that
      way, and there’s undoubtedly a lot of thinking behind
      it. There are all kinds of these double feints going
      on now as they try to outstrategize each other.”

      Mr. Mauro, the Clinton state campaign director, said
      the state’s importance to both campaigns was
      ultimately about much more than delegates. It has
      emerged as a near-perfect proving ground for
      Democratic candidates to make the case that they can
      win in November.

      “You’ve got to carry a big, diverse state if you want
      to be the nominee of the national Democratic Party,”
      he said, adding of Mr. Obama, “He hasn’t done that
      yet.”

      “So I would suggest he has as much at stake here as we
      do,” Mr. Mauro said, adding that at least one thing
      about Texas remained predictable: It has always
      appreciated a good old-fashioned showdown.

      “If you can’t keep more than one ball in the air,” he
      said, “you don’t deserve to be in this business.”
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