WASHINGTON -- Democrats appear to have recruited retired Lt.
Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to run for the U.S. Senate in Texas, setting the stage for the party to field a well-known candidate in the 2012 race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a Democrat, confirmed that Democratic Senate campaign chief Patty Murray, D-Wash., was referring to Sanchez on Thursday when she said Democrats were close to announcing a candidate in Texas.
Sanchez, reached by phone at his San Antonio home, asked where the reports of a Senate run came from and then said,
"I can neither confirm nor deny."
Sanchez, the former top military commander in Iraq who was left under a cloud from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, would not discuss the Senate race. But he did respond to questions about his career and political philosophy.
"I would describe myself as during my military career as supporting the president and the Constitution," Sanchez said. "After the military, I decided that socially, I'm a progressive, a fiscal conservative and a strong supporter, obviously, of national defense."
Sanchez, a Rio Grande City native, said he was shaped by his upbringing.
"It's my views and my history, having grown up in South Texas, depending on social programs and assistance, that America has a responsibility to its people," he said.
Barnes, one of the state's last high-profile Democrats, said, "I talked to him. It sounded to
me like he's close to being a candidate."
"He's got a very compelling story," Barnes said. "He's the one guy who could unite the Hispanic vote. He'll get the conservative Hispanic businessman."
There is, however, lingering controversy from the year he spent as U.S. commander in Iraq, from 2003 to 2004.
Asked whether the
Abu Ghraib scandal -- in which U.S. military personnel and contractors humiliated prisoners in photos seen worldwide -- had effectively terminated his military career, Sanchez said, "That's pretty fair."
He retired in 2006.
Sanchez emphasized that he knew nothing about the actions at the prison and was cleared by Army
His 2008 book, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story, criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war.
In the interview, he said President George W. Bush "at times asked the right questions but didn't impose his will."
Until now, all the attention in the U.S. Senate race has been on the Republicans, and Barnes is eager for the Democrats to compete.
Republicans now hold every statewide elected office in Texas.
"It's the one candidate that will cause John Cornyn some heartburn," Barnes said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is chairman of the Senate campaign committee.
Several congressional Hispanic Democrats, including Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio, told the Star-Telegram that they welcome Sanchez's likely entry into the race.
"I think he will be a very viable candidate," Cuellar said.
After Murray's surprise announcement that Texas was one of six states in 2012 targeted by Democrats, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said, "Republicans can only hope that national Democrats are going to waste
their money in the state of Texas. We look forward to their mystery candidate."
Maria Recio is the Star-Telegram's Washington bureau chief. 202-383-6103