Clinton-Obama Rodeo Lassos Texas

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Ben Sklar / Getty

Voters cast ballots at a polling place located in a grocery store parking lot February 19, 2008, in Austin, Texas.

It was not supposed to happen here. Texas planned on taking a backseat in this year's political battles. All the brouhaha would be over by March 4, when the Texas primary rolled around, the pundits said. And Texas would sleepily run through its odd combination primary/caucus.

Wrong. On Tuesday, the first day of early voting, election officials across the state reported a record turnout. In just one day in the state's 15 most populous counties, some 65,000-plus voters went to grocery stores and bank lobbies, rec centers and libraries to vote. Some images are startling: 1,000 Prairie View A&M students, a traditionally African-American college in a rural area west of Houston, marched seven miles to the nearest early voting station. And in a state requiring no party registration to cast a ballot, two out of three early voters so far have asked for a Democratic ballot. That is where the battle is being fought: between a must-win Hillary Clinton and a surging Barack Obama.

Texas has one of the longest — 10 days this year — early voting periods in the country; and the turnout tends to a follow a familiar pattern, says Rice University political scientist and pollster Bob Stein. It's heavy for the first three days and the last three. With the caveat that this year's election is breaking familiar patterns (particularly the magnitude of the numbers voting), Stein says that it will likely benefit Clinton initially. "I expect Clinton would benefit from 'early' early voting only because her polling numbers were higher before the campaign came to Texas," Stein said. "Since this weekend her polling numbers have dropped, producing a dead heat between her and Obama. She continues to drop in the overnight polls." That means, Stein believes, that she will do better with early voters than election day voters, and prognosticators are predicting a record, perhaps two-million-plus turnout in the Democratic primary, more than double any in recent years.

Indeed, election mania is gripping the entire state, from talk radio to blogs and even craigslist, where pleas were being made for tickets to the Austin CNN debate and the Texas Democratic Party's Debate Watch at the Austin Hyatt. The TDP's online drawing for 100 debate tickets attracted over 40,000 entrants, and party officials called on the media Wednesday to get the word out to the public that the Hyatt party was sold out. One poster warned shoppers not to be scammed by ticket offers: "Hang on to your money and take a free seat in front of your television." Some 7.6 million viewers tuned in to the CNN airing, and that doesn't include an unaccounted Latino audience who listened to the debate on Spanish-language Univision. "It's an old story — it's not ever about politics, its about attractive candidates," Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant says, adding that this year the Democrats have two attractive candidates locked in a tight race. "People want to be in on the action," he adds.

This is an old story in other ways. There is a nostalgic cast to the race — Obama is running Austin television ads that are vaguely Woodstockian with smiling faces and young, casually dressed supporters cheering and waving. "We can save the world!" the graphic exclaims. In the Rio Grande Valley, now a booming trade center but once home to shabby migrant labor camps, Clinton is running ads featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the grandson of United Farm Workers icon Cesar Chavez. And the aging lion of the Democratic Party, U.S. Senator Teddy Kennedy, has been holding rallies on college campuses in South Texas rousing young voters with a vigorous version of "Jalisco," a popular mariachi song that has recorded almost 16,000 hits on You Tube.

The Obama wave came to the Texas Capitol in Austin on Friday for a rally on the same spot near the Texas Capitol where George W. Bush followers huddled in a cold rain almost eight years ago for the longest election night on record. Some of Obama's most popular lines of the night bashed President Bush as the crowd — estimated variously at between 15,000 to 30,000 — listened rapturously for almost an hour. A jumbo screen broadcast his image down Congress Avenue, not far from the city's nightclub district, and one homemade sign read: "The Beginning Is Near."

With polls tightening and the arcane Democratic rules governing delegate allocation favoring Obama, Clinton will need a very strong showing in the popular vote to garner enough delegates to try to catch Obama in the overall count. For example, in 1988, when Gov. Michael Dukakis won in a four-way primary with 33% of the vote — with Rev. Jesse Jackson coming second with 25% — Dukakis got 72 delegates and Jackson 67. To get the delegate count she needs to make a Texas win count, most observers believe Clinton needs a 60%-plus win; to get that, she must hope that 70% of Latinos break for her. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar from Laredo, an early supporter of Clinton and a pragmatic politician — as a state representative he supported candidate George W. Bush in 2000 — says he is supporting Clinton because she can hold Hispanic moderates in the general election.

But while Clinton still has the support of most of the state's Democratic congressmen, Obama has won over two of the state's savviest members of Congress, U.S. Representatives Chet Edwards of Waco and Lloyd Doggett of Austin. "Doggett is as good a politico as any," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum report, a well-respected Texas political newsletter. "If you see a tidal wave get in front of it."

There is a clear generational split between younger political leaders and what Jim Henson, director of the Texas Political Project at the University of Texas, calls machine politicians, many of whom are backing Clinton. Those generational differences represent a "cellular shift among Democrats," Henson says. That was illustrated Wednesday when President Bill Clinton stood side by side at a Beaumont rally with octogenarian former Congressman Jack Brooks. Beaumont is one of the working class areas of East Texas Bill Clinton has been working for his wife. But Obama is now "leading a movement," Stein says, a "child's crusade" that has developed momentum.

For Democrats looking to November, the concern, says Stein, is that Obama's appeal emanates from "outside the center and dangerously close to the extreme" compared to presumptive G.O.P. candidate John McCain, whose appeal comes from the center. However, that kind of calculation doesn't matter to Bruce Elfant, a local Austin official, member of the State Democratic Executive Committee and an ardent Obama supporter. Clinton can win the presidency, he believes, but if she does her popular mandate will be no more than 51% and he says that is not a big enough margin to bring real change to Washington and revive the Texas Democratic Party. Elfant believes Obama can win 54% in the fall and that margin has the power to change the dialogue, the way things are being done in Washington and boost the state party. "It's gonna take that kind of election to make the changes," he says. But even an Obama enthusiast like Elfant shares one concern that many have raised: that the candidate, he says, "is untested... that is a little bit of a risk." It is that little thread on Obama's sweater that Clinton is hoping to pull on as she fights in Texas for her political future.