DALLAS -- Melancholy that pervaded conversation with prominent Republicans in the holiday season derived less from pain over the unimaginable loss of the governorship to Democrat Ann Richards than from a deeper sorrow: the course of the adopted Texan in the White House and the course of their party.
Few tears are shed by Republicans here over the self-immolation of their candidate for governor, multimillionaire tycoon Clayton Williams. Rather, Texas year-end blues stemmed from doubts about the state party's two preeminent figures: George Bush and Phil Gramm. In different ways, each is criticized in private by longtime supporters for flunking leadership tests.
Such criticism may seem odd after an election in which Republicans can claim to have achieved parity with Democrats in this former one-party state, winning four statewide elective offices in November despite the fiasco for governor. But here, as elsewhere, there is a sense that the party under President Bush does not know where it is going on issues and that his preoccupation with the Persian Gulf only makes matters worse.
Surprisingly little wailing is about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for governor. One party source told us that most Republican activists, at least around Dallas, are pleased that Williams talked himself out of the governor's chair: it saves them the embarrassment of Claytie bloopers in office and also tosses the hot potato of new taxes in Richards' lap.
But if the cowboy-oilman whose millions purchased the nomination for governor is dismissed as good riddance, there is no consensus on what should follow him. Party sources sound uncertain about what theme to pursue. If pressed, they blame their president.
That does not deny Bush's popularity here. While Democrats denigrate the president's Texas credentials (based today on a seldom-used Houston hotel suite), there is no question he is viewed by Texans as one of their own, along with millions of other immigrants since World War II. With the possible, unlikely exception of a native Texan, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, no Democrat could come close to him here in 1992.
Nevertheless, old friends and supporters we interviewed are dismayed by Bush's abandonment of his tax pledge without getting anything in return. The debilitating effect of the budget deal on the president's credibility and his party's morale is no less severe in his home state than anywhere else.
What concerns the Bush constituency is that, so far, there has been no follow-up with a domestic program to fight recession and establish a Republican program. One longtime supporter with access to the president has sought to interest him in a growth agenda, to no avail. "He has his mind on other things," the Bush backer told us.
The "other things" comprise the vision of the president's "new world order," centered on his face-off with Saddam Hussein. One Bush-oriented operative, while critical of the administration's domestic policy, told us Texas gives him a free pass in handling the gulf crisis.
But not unanimously. Even in hawkish, pro-Bush Texas, there is no patriotic surge for war. One business executive asked his associates as a year-end exercise what advice they would give the president; some urged negotiations, not one pushed war. A Bush ally of over 35 years told us he would like the United States to stick to the sanctions for another year.
If Texas Republicans love their president even while thinking him a bit shaky on the issues, we found considerably less affection for Sen. Gramm. His easy reelection in November was won after incessant money demands, often made personally by the senator. "We got the idea that Phil never really cared for much except himself -- not our campaign anyway," the manager for another statewide candidate told us.
It is assumed here that Gramm's eye is fixed on 1996 -- not on a third term in the Senate, but on the presidential nomination. One young party operative, who believes Gramm's election as Senate Republican campaign chairman will make his presence scarcer in Texas, told us he and many friends are ready to enlist behind Secretary of State James A. Baker III for a presidential run against Gramm.
That partially reflects concern that Gramm's anti-government conservatism is too harsh for modern Texas. If so, what does the GOP stand for now that it is on even terms with Democrats here? In the absence of a surer course set by the White House, many Republicans frankly admit they don't know.