WORLD

THE TEXAS TREND

IN THE KEY LONE STAR STATE, CONSERVATIVE DEMOCRATS CONTINUE TO ELUDE DUKAKIS

MARCI McDONALD October 17 1988
WORLD

THE TEXAS TREND

IN THE KEY LONE STAR STATE, CONSERVATIVE DEMOCRATS CONTINUE TO ELUDE DUKAKIS

MARCI McDONALD October 17 1988

THE TEXAS TREND

WORLD

IN THE KEY LONE STAR STATE, CONSERVATIVE DEMOCRATS CONTINUE TO ELUDE DUKAKIS

In the forest cypress and pine that fringe Lone Star—a down-at-the-heels Texas steel town 192 km east of Dallas—the dovehunting season has just end-

ed. But all morning, dusty pickup trucks with bumper stickers reading “Don’t mess with Texas” converged on the hamlet of 2,069 in pursuit of another sort of quarry—a firsthand look at Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. Some came just for the free barbecue lunch. And others, like Lone Star’s mayor, James Smith, came out of curiosity. A lifelong Democrat, Smith had watched with pride the night before as Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen had bested his Republican rival, Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, in a televised vice-presidential debate. But Bentsen’s star turn had not changed Smith’s feelings about voting for Dukakis, who flew into Lone - Star that morning with his running mate for a celebratory rally. “It's the liberal image he has,” said Smith. “When my wife read in the Reader’s Digest about him letting criminals out of jail on weekends to rape again, she just went thumbs down on Dukakis.” Agreed Gary Helms, manager of C and C Wsstern Wear: “A lot of people are scared of him around here. They’re afraid he’s going to take our guns away.”

Across the Lone Star state, with its pivotal 29 electoral college votes—the third-largest block in the nation—perceptions such as those have left Dukakis’s principal campaign strategy in tatters. Despite his efforts to turn Texas into a key battleground by naming the state’s most popular politician as his running mate, Dukakis now finds himself trailing Bush there by eight to 12 points in the party’s private

opinion polls. Many conservative Democrats who voted for Reagan in the last two elections have Med to respond to Bentsen’s call to “come home” to the party that they abandoned. And the self-professed Tory Democrat has so far been unable to transfer his enormous personal appeal—or the clout of his formidable grassroots organization and multimillion-dollar campaign chest—to the Massachusetts governor. Said Smith: “I am not going to be voting for a vice-president. I am going to be voting for a president—and that’s the key.”

In fact, that distinction has already led Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, to claim victory in a state that the vice-president calls his adopted home. But his lead does not arise from the fact that he holds a $240-a-

night suite in a Houston hotel as his official mailing address. It is a result of the fact that many, like Stone, regard Dukakis as “too liberal.” Indeed, Bush has managed to turn this fall’s White House race into a debate, not on his administration’s mixed economic record, but on what a political strategist calls “hot-button” social values—crime, gun control and patriotism. Those issues are helping Bush capture the loyalty of the conservative, self-described “good old boys” of the Texas countryside, an estimated two million swing voters.

Bush’s success in shifting the campaign’s focus is all the more remarkable in a state where his slogan “Peace and prosperity” evokes only grim reminders of headier days. Ever since the bottom fell out of the oil

market in 1982—and the rest of the country began its economic recovery—Texans have reeled in shock and disbelief as their oil-financed spending spree collapsed. Unemployment soared to recession levels, and the concrete office towers of Dallas and Houston still register the highest vacancy rates in the country. Nor has the oil collapse shown any sign of reversing. In the first six months of this year alone, 97 banks have failed—more than half the nation’s total failures—racking up losses of $3.5 billion.

But nowhere has the slump been felt more

bitterly than in Lone Star, a town raised on the iron ore beds of East Texas 35 years ago specifically to turn out specialty tubing and pipes for the oilfields. Once, its belching blast furnaces employed 6,500 people and kept 36 trucking firms busy hauling its products to the oilfields of West Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. But over the past five years, Lone Star has laid off more than 5,000 steelworkers. Like many of them, Royce Colliflower blames Ronald Reagan and George Bush for his problems—his runaway wife, his welfare subsistence and a stint in jail for writing bad cheques. In his attempts to put food on the table, he says, “my handwriting got the best of me.” He adds, “If we could get rid of Reagan and Bush, we might have a chance.”

In Lone Star, where the unemployment rate is now 22 per cent, men once accustomed to

$48,000-a-year salaries suddenly found themselves living on $255-a-week in unemployment insurance. Said Colliflower: “It was like taking a bucket of cold water when you least expect it. People were losing their homes, their cars. The divorce rate went up, and there were reports of people abusing their kids. That’s what happens when you get under a lot of stress.”

Some residents found solace in alcohol or drugs, others in religion. And the number of burglaries rose. Those trends may help to explain why last week, even when the price of crude oil plummeted to $15.27 a barrel, the lowest in two years, some of those who gathered at Arnold’s Family Restaurant concentrated not on the lack of a White House energy policy— as many Democrats had hoped—but on crime and gun control. Over grilled catfish and chicken-fried steak, the patrons repeated messages that they had heard in a 60-second radio commercial sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA) on country-music stations across Texas. In it, actor Charlton Heston, a member of the NRA, claims that Dukakis “did everything he could to take guns away from honest citizens” in Massachusetts. “Now he wants to do it all over America.” Last week, Nelda Hall, a cashier at Crump’s Food Store, who herself has a rifle and a shotgun locked up at home, admitted that “all I know about Dukakis is that he is against guns; that’s the big issue around here— even among women.”

Democratic state chairman Robert Slagle says that he is infuriated by the fact that, for weeks, Dukakis’s advisers refused to respond to the ads. “You can’t leave these charges out unanswered and expect the American g people to see through them,” he said, if! “Texas politics is a hard-nosed game. I We do a little more brass knuckles down here.” The owner of nearly a 1 dozen guns himself, Slagle blames the £ campaign’s Boston hierarchy for ^ squandering Dukakis’s 16-point lead in the polls after the Democratic convention in July. “They went on automatic control,” he said. “Now they have to answer a lot of these ridiculous charges.”

Dukakis’s aides also took nearly a month to respond to Bush’s Republican convention reminder that the governor was “a card-carrying member” of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). For Dukakis’s staff, many of them graduates of Harvard Law School, his affiliation with the 250,000-member, nonpartisan legal organization did not seem worth comment. The controversial group has been attacked by both the left and right for such disparate stands as fighting the deportation of immigrants with radical political beliefs and defending the right of Illinois neo-Nazis to demonstrate.

But in the South and Texas the ACLU calls

forth high emotion, some of it because of the organization’s battles on behalf of civil rights causes and its opposition to school prayer and an abortion ban favored by evangelical Christians. Said Mayor Smith: “To me, the name ACLU pushes a panic button. Some of the things they're pushing I just can’t hack.” Still, it was not until two weeks ago that the governor finally distanced himself from some of the group’s positions and issued a press release noting that the ACLU was suing his state for refusing to allow homosexuals to become foster parents. But by then, the damage was done. The label was coupled with Bush’s ads relating that a convicted murderer named Willie Horton once raped a Maryland woman after he escaped from a Massachusetts weekend prison-furlough program—a program begun by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor and shared

by 43 other states. But the ads painted Dukakis as a liberal, a word with strong connotations in Texas and the South. Bush’s aim was to frighten key conservative swing voters who could decide the election. But for many Democrats, his success at painting Dukakis into a liberal corner seemed ironic. Said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry: “For years, progressives in Massachusetts have been attacking him as too conservative.” Slagle has found his call for a tougher Democratic campaign bolstered by another shrewd tactician: Bentsen. In fact, according to campaign insiders, during a joint campaign appearance in Texas three weeks ago,

the senator angrily told Dukakis that he was “tired of being on the defensive at every stop.” Warning the governor that he would lose not only Texas but the election as a whole unless he started answering Bush’s charges, he urged Dukakis to take up the attack. This week, the Democrats finally launched a series of three new television commercials and one radio spot in Texas assaulting Bush’s environmental, energy and crime record. But the biggest impetus for the Democrats’ newfound aggressiveness came from Bentsen’s own example in last week’s debate. After trying to lower expectations for his performance, the soft-spoken senator stunned his own longtime aides by delivering the knockout punch of the 90-minute encounter. When Quayle claimed that he was as well-prepared to step into the presidency as John F. Kennedy

had been, silence fell over the Nebraska hall at Bentsen’s quiet reply. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The crowd erupted in cheers and boos. Quayle’s look of devastation—and his repeated inability to explain what he would do should he be called to take over the White House—led viewers in an ABC network poll held immediately after the debate to name Bentsen the winner by 51 to 27 per cent. And on the morning after the debate, Bush seemed to acknowledge implicitly that Quayle’s qualifications remained an issue by failing to mention him at all. But so far, the event has translated into only a three-point increase in Dukakis’s ratings. And some spectators, such as Lone Star’s Mayor Smith, claimed that, although having

Quayle “a heartbeat away [from the presidency] makes me nervous,” the debate had not changed his intention to vote for Bush. Said Smith: “He didn’t fold the ticket.” Still, the greatest effect of the vicepresidential debate may have been to energize Dukakis himself. Arriving on the shores of Lone Star Lake for his rally with Bentsen last week, he barely concealed his newfound exuberance. With his own final debate against Bush scheduled for this week in Los Angeles, many Texas Democrats—like the unemployed steelworkers of Lone Star—only hope that his recovery has not come too late.

MARCI McDONALD in Lone Star