Clinton's Ties To Texas Run Long and Deep

In 1996, Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned for her husband's reelection at the University of Texas at Austin. Her ties to Texas go back to 1972, when she worked on George McGovern's campaign.
In 1996, Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned for her husband's reelection at the University of Texas at Austin. Her ties to Texas go back to 1972, when she worked on George McGovern's campaign. (By Kevin Delahunty -- Associated Press)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

AUSTIN -- Sen. Barack Obama left a phone message for J.D. Salinas, the county judge in South Texas's Hidalgo County, last weekend. Former senator Thomas A. Daschle called on the candidate's behalf last Wednesday. "He asked me to be part of the campaign," Salinas said. "I told him it was too late."

Salinas originally backed New Mexico's Bill Richardson for the Democratic nomination, believing that a governor from a state along the Mexican border with a lengthy foreign policy r¿sum¿ had the credentials he was looking for. When Richardson quit the race, Salinas's decision to support Obama's rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was easy. "She's the only candidate who's ever visited South Texas," he said.

Sixteen years ago, as a young volunteer, Salinas helped look after Clinton when she came to McAllen for a big South Texas rally the day before her husband was elected president. He hasn't forgotten that day. "There's no learning curve for Senator Clinton," he said. "She's been coming here for 30 years."

When the Texas primary campaign begins in earnest after Tuesday's vote in Wisconsin, Obama will find stories such as this all over the Lone Star State. From her incidental connections such as the one Salinas described from the 1992 campaign, to deep friendships formed working in Texas during the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern, to acquaintances gained from multiple visits over the past decades, Clinton is rooted in Texas as she is in few other states.

Texas is one of two populous states -- the other is Ohio -- with March 4 primaries, where the Clinton campaign sees the opportunity to arrest Obama's momentum. Both set up well for the senator from New York, at least in initial assessments. Ohio's economic woes make it potentially receptive to Clinton's focus on bread-and-butter issues. Texas, because of its large Hispanic community, provides a base of support that has been critical to Clinton in other states.

In Texas, Obama cannot replicate Clinton's affinity overnight. His advisers believe they can overcome many of her built-in advantages, enough at least to emerge with a close split in delegates under the state's convoluted primary-caucus system, by tapping into a new generation of Texans who have no connections to the Clintons and by arguing that the senator from Illinois would be the stronger general-election candidate. But as was the case in the run-up to Super Tuesday, his advisers say he will be in a race against the clock.

"My guess is, in Texas [Clinton's] base in the Democratic Party is broader than in any other state that I can think of," said Henry G. Cisneros, who accompanied Clinton on that trip to McAllen in 1992 and later served as housing secretary in her husband's administration. Referring to a former Texas governor, he said: "They have good ties to the Ann Richards liberals. They have good ties to labor in Houston. Good ties to some of the Democratic money in Dallas. Good ties traditionally to the African American community -- though it won't be as helpful -- and good ties to the Latino community."

The Young Turks who helped Clinton register voters and organize Texas for McGovern in a hopeless battle against Richard M. Nixon -- Garry Mauro and Roy Spence -- are at the center of her campaign in the state. Others, like Cisneros, who became friends later or joined the Clinton administration during the 1990s, are fanning out as surrogates in what has become a campaign to save her candidacy.

Mauro argues that Clinton has a 36-year head start on Obama in Texas. "She cut her teeth on doing community organizing in Texas," Mauro said. "So she has real roots here. . . . And she has come back continuously since then."

Juan Garcia, a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's and now a first-term legislator in Texas, does not underestimate Clinton's advantages in the state. But he argues that Texas has changed dramatically since the Clintons got to know it and that a new generation of voters will be more receptive to Obama.

"Without a doubt they have a history here from the early '70s in the McGovern campaign," he said. "But the demographics of Texas and South Texas are interesting. The average Hispanic voter in the state is under 40. The average Hispanic is age 26. So those memories and those links and those ties, to a lot of young people who have been voting for only a few years, have been lost on them."

Daschle, in an e-mail message, said even veteran Democrats are moving to Obama. "While she has a longer history with Democrats in Texas, I don't sense a deep loyalty," he wrote.

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