In Tuesday's Contests, a Party Divided

A generational rift defines the presidential race among Latinos in Texas's Rio Grande Valley, where Barack Obama has generated enough momentum with young voters to threaten Hillary Clinton's Latino support base.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. -- State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. pulled into the parking lot at Rudy's "Country Store" and Bar-B-Q one day last week in an old pickup truck worn by 237,000 miles. He winced as he stepped down from the driver's seat, evidence of two heart attacks and a recent hernia surgery.

Doctors had ordered him to stay home, but he refused to watch Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Texas campaign deteriorate from his couch. Lucio, 62, planned to use his influence across the Rio Grande Valley to save her.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, 29, arrived in a new Saab compact with a Barack Obama bumper sticker on the rear window. A few months ago, when he applied the decal, friends heckled him. His endorsement of Obama alienated some constituents in a Latino district thick with Clinton loyalists. Career suicide, some colleagues called it. Now, Lucio hoped to prove his instincts right.

Father and son had met here at Rudy's for dozens of meals, but as they ate smoked brisket and casually talked about their respective candidates last week, the Lucios struggled with an uncomfortable new divide.

"I admire Eddie's optimism, but it's a little naive," the father said.

"Ah, come on," Big Ed -- as his father calls him -- joked. "The world is just passing you by."

A generational rift defines the Democratic race among Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley, where Clinton once enjoyed almost complete support. Obama introduced himself here two weeks ago, and he has since generated enough momentum with young voters to threaten Clinton's Latino support base. Polls indicate that Clinton's lead has evaporated in Texas, a state that her husband has said she must win Tuesday.

An argument that began two months ago in the Lucio household now echoes along the Texas border. Whose voice is louder: that of loyal Latinos who credit Clinton for her history of paying attention to an impoverished region that so many other politicians forget? Or that of younger, better-educated Latinos who identify with Obama as a minority who emerged from nothing?

Last week at Rudy's, the Lucios sat on opposite sides of the table in silence, weary from the campaign. Both are running unopposed for reelection, and they have devoted their free time to the presidential primary. Lucio Jr. had spent his afternoon racing between Clinton events, handing out stickers and shaking hands. Meanwhile, the son whom he introduced to politics outlined a speech he would deliver at an upcoming Obama rally.

The grandson of Italians who immigrated first to Mexico and then to Texas, Lucio Jr. taught school for $8,000 a year before running for local office in 1970. He aspired to serve simple people who wanted the tools for survival -- Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, now making an average of $19,000 a year in a town that is 90 percent Latino. As a politician, he considers loyalty and dependability his greatest strengths.

Lucio III left home to dabble in professional golf before graduating from law school in Austin, and he returned to Brownsville with grand visions of change. He told his father that nothing is impossible, even in a town left without an interstate and with a main boulevard that dead-ends abruptly at the Mexican border.

"What people are beginning to realize down here is that there's such a thing as loyalty to a fault," Big Ed told his father at the restaurant. "Obama's got momentum, he's -- "

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