AUSTIN -- If Will Rogers were alive and ventured across the Red River down into Texas this year, he might feel obliged to change his old line, "I don't belong to an organized political party -- I'm a Democrat."
Today in the Lone Star state the Democrats appear rather docile and cohesive, while the Republicans are attacking, leaking, cheating, accusing, denying and even signing up dead people as though they were disciples of Chicago's late Mayor Richard J. Daley or Jersey City's Boss Frank Hague.
So far, one candidate, former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, has withdrawn from Texas, the Lone Star campaigns of three other candidates are in jeopardy, there have been threats of "a general range war" among campaign directors, and the state GOP has found itself in the embarrassing position of making thousands of telephone calls to check on the honesty of all six campaign staffs. And the drama is not over yet.
With the most delegates at stake among 20 states -- most of them southern and border states -- holding presidential primaries on "Super Tuesday," March 8, Texas is one of the Big Enchiladas of the 1988 campaign. It is not surprising that partisans for the various national candidates would go at one another.
But that was expected of the Democrats -- who not only are particularly good at internecine warfare, but also have something to fight over; a wide-open race. On the Republican side, Texas was, and probably will remain, in the back pocket of Vice President Bush, who used to live in Midland and Houston and still maintains a voting address at Suite 271 of the Houstonian Hotel.
The Grand Old Fandango started on Jan. 5, the day after campaign officials for the six Republican candidates were required to file at state party headquarters ballot-qualifying petitions with signatures of at least 5,000 registered voters. Within hours of the filings, word started leaking out to political reporters in Austin that many signatures looked suspicious, particularly those on the petitions of Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.).
Of the dozens of signatures checked by reporters at The Dallas Morning News, most of the persons who were supposed to have signed them denied ever doing so and said they were Democrats. One alleged Dole petitioner had been dead for five years.
Soon petitions filed by du Pont and former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. were also called into question. The addresses of some supposed signers were vacant lots in Houston. A Houston Chronicle reporter found her father's name on the du Pont list, which surprised her -- not only because he had been a lifelong Democrat, but also because he was dead.
As it turned out, Dole, Haig and du Pont had all used the same Houston political firm, Southern Political Consulting, to help them garner the needed signatures, and that firm had hired temporary workers who were paid on a per-signature basis.
Kevin Burnette, president of Southern Political Consulting, said he was not involved in forging signatures. But one of the temporary workers in Houston, 18-year-old Jay Harmening, said that he was in the consulting firm's office one day when some signatures were forged. His mother, Penny Harmening, said Jay told her that the voting lists were passed around along with the petition sheets and the workers were told to forge the next name on the list. She said the temporary workers, many of them teen-agers, were drinking beer while they were doing the work.
But as the investigation expanded it became clear that the forgery problems extended beyond the Houston consulting firm. Spot checks of the petitions for Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.), whose campaign here did not use Southern Political Consulting, also found that nearly half of the first 40 people whose names appeared on the petitions claimed that they had never signed them. And hundreds of names on the du Pont petitions in Dallas also turned out to be forgeries -- a finding that prompted the du Pont campaign to fire one of its workers and withdraw from the state.
A swelling throng of gumshoes are now working the case, including the Harris County district attorney's office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, state Attorney General Jim Mattox and a number of lawyers. The state Republican Party set up an expensive telephone bank to double-check the signatures on petitions of all six candidates. So far Bush and Pat Robertson have been cleared. Dole and Kemp might have enough valid signatures, du Pont clearly did not, and Haig looks to be in deep trouble.
Why did the campaigns in question have to recruit mercenaries to gather signatures for them, rather than use volunteers -- as Bush, Kemp and Robertson did? Did that say something about the weakness of their state organizations? In the case of both Haig and du Pont, the answer seems to be yes. Their Texas organizations are virtually nonexistent. As for Dole, who is running a weak second in Texas, the question is a source of great internal consternation.
Tom Pauken, a Dallas businessman who is one of Dole's state cochairs, said the organization had more than enough signatures collected by volunteers, and that hiring Southern Political Consultants to help was "neither necessary nor appropriate." That decision was made by state campaign director James Meadows, whose job appears to be on the line.
But as angry as Pauken was with what he called "a bad exercise in judgment," he was even more furious with state party officials, whom he suspected of tipping off the press to the faulty petitions in the first place in what he viewed as not only a partisan effort to embarrass Dole but also part of a petty feud involving voter registration list companies. Pauken is vice president of a company that owns a voting list operation, and recently he attacked John Weaver, the party's executive director, for entering into a voting list contract with Bush's pollster, Robert Teeter.
"This is turning into a witch hunt that demeans the Republican Party and its supporters," Pauken said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out the motives behind this latest press stunt. Relations are getting very tense, to say the least. Folks associated with the Bush campaign are entering into a scorched-earth policy, in which anyone supporting Dole is going to pay a price. This is going to leave a real bitter taste in people's mouths."
At Republican headquarters, an official dismissed the Dole conspiracy theory by saying, "The only thing missing from their theory is Lee Harvey Oswald."
Jim Oberwetter, Bush's state director, agreed that the whole affair had embarrassed the state party, but he placed the blame solely on the Dole organization. "They clearly have panicked," he said. "If one has to pay people to go out and generate names to achieve ballot position, that's not a show of strength. Far be it from me to advise the senator on what to do, but this has been a significant embarrassment and we were hoping the senator might show some leadership in cleaning up the mess."
There remains great confusion over what might happen if it is determined that any of the candidates turned in fewer than 5,000 valid signatures. At first party officials said anyone without the required number would be stricken from the ballot. Then they realized they didn't have the power to do that, so they said any delegates elected under those circumstances would be uncommitted. Dole and Haig officials question the party rules on that point, so there is likely to be a court challenge.
But with all of this hoo-ha, things have changed very little in substantive ways. Polls show Bush winning 60 percent or more of the vote among Texas Republicans, with Dole second and Kemp third. Most of the state's Republican establishment, including Gov. Bill Clements, is in the Bush camp -- although there is some question as to whether Clements, stunningly unpopular in his state these days, helps or hurts Bush. Dole operatives here say they would be happy to win one-third of the 111 delegates. That would be a disappointment to the Bush people.
"We want to take all 111 delegates," said Oberwetter. "It is within the realm of possibility."