Why a Texas Democrat has the GOP Worried

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If Republicans have one sure thing, it ought to be Texas. In Bush country they hold all 27 statewide offices. It has been nearly 30 years since a Democrat has won an open Senate seat. When three-term Senator Phil Gramm announced his retirement last year, who thought Republicans didn't have a lock on his replacement? Just to make sure, the President's political strategist, Karl Rove, mineswept the primary field to ensure that attorney general John Cornyn, a stately, snowy-haired vote getter with a huge political bankroll, would have a straight shot at the job.

So how come the crowd attending a convention of rural electric cooperatives in a Dallas hotel last week — men whose weathered faces spoke of long days riding tractors and branding cattle — was getting such a kick out of the afternoon's speaker, the African-American Democratic nominee for Senator? Ron Kirk had them applauding from the moment he told them, "I sure wish Enron ran their business the way y'all run yours." By the time he had finished up with his line about giving the capital a dose of "what it's like to be on the front lines of problem solving," some were ready to pledge their votes. "If there is an honest person in politics," declared Billy Gillespie, manager of an electric co-op in Corsicana, "Ron Kirk is an honest person."

What no Republican calculations took into account was Kirk's charm. A tall, bald man with a big voice and a booming laugh, he jokes, he chats, he hugs and pats his way through a room. The 48-year-old Democrat made a sparkling career by forging alliances across ideological and racial lines, from his election as senior class president at a largely white Austin high school through two runaway victories as mayor of Dallas, a Republican citadel. When George W. was a Governor toying with the idea of a run for the White House, his nickname for Kirk, then an ally, was "Vice President."

Not now. Kirk's candidacy poses a real threat of Election Day humiliation for the President on his home turf. Some polls this summer have given Kirk an edge, and all show an extremely tight race. He has mobilized heavy political backing from Dallas' conservative business elite and raised more money than Cornyn in Bush's old Dallas zip code. One contributor is Bush's own media consultant, Mark McKinnon, who counts Kirk among his former clients.

Kirk's strength comes not just from his sunny personality but also from a solid record as a pro-business mayor who took over a city paralyzed by racial bickering and left downtown Dallas with a gleaming sports arena, a successful light-rail system, a new police headquarters under construction and $543 million in funding for development along the Trinity River — without losing powerful minority support. Recalls David Biegler, a Republican energy executive who chaired the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce when Kirk was elected: "The force of his personality drove people to work together and get things done."

Opponent Cornyn calls Kirk's record "of marginal significance" to what kind of Senator he would be, emphasizing his un-Texan links to the national Democratic Party. (Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have headlined East Coast fund raisers.) That, he says, explains Kirk's opposition to pet Texas issues like Alaskan oil drilling and his desire to tie future installments of the Bush tax cut to deficit reduction.

Kirk says he has no choice but to enlist outside support since he's looking down the barrel of Bush's fund-raising might. The President and Vice President have already flown home on Cornyn's behalf; Laura Bush will appear at a Cornyn money drive this week in Austin, where the price of a photo with the First Lady will be $5,000. While the two campaigns have raised equivalent war chests, Cornyn has just begun to tap his, while Kirk had to spend heavily to win a three-way Democratic primary. "I have to be on TV when it counts," Kirk says, "and have voters understand who I am and why I'm running."

Both sides understand that this election will test whether the state's shifting demographics have altered its politics. The Democrats are banking on multicultural appeal, with Kirk for Senator and millionaire Hispanic businessman Tony Sanchez running for Governor. But Kirk bristles at that kind of identity politics and says he prefers to run on issues like corporate accountability and fiscal discipline. He knows he can't win unless minority voters turn out strongly, but he also needs white votes. As he steered his suv into the parking lot of a Dallas chop house last week, Kirk insisted he's one candidate who doesn't have to make that a choice: "I bring a lot more to the table than a nice historic testament to how much the state has changed."