AUSTIN -- No one answers the telephone at Gephardt headquarters in the capital of Texas these days -- no human, that is. The answering machine comes on after the fourth ring. All the people who used to work there have been dispatched to the precincts where they think the Texas Democratic presidential primary might be decided: Dubuque, Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, Davenport.
"We've sort of redefined the concept of North Texas," said Missy Mandell, Lone Star State coordinator for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), speaking by telephone from her strategically located headquarters-in-exile -- in Dubuque, Iowa, 1,200 miles by bus and 45 degrees by thermometer from Austin.
Is that any way to win Texas? The Gephardt people think it is their only way: Triumph at the Iowa caucuses Feb. 8 and then roll down into Cowboy Country with what Don Meredith used to call "Ole Mo" -- as in momentum.
Usually the most popular political questions in a primary state begin with the word "who": Who's in front? Who's going to win? But for the moment -- at least until Iowa and perhaps even New Hampshire are decided -- no one in Texas has a clue about those things. The essential question here begins with the word "how": How do you win Texas?
There are as many answers as there are candidates.
Gephardt's strategy is to redraw the geopolitical map so that Iowa becomes part of the Texas panhandle. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) has the opposite concept. On his map, Texas looms so large that Iowa and New Hampshire disappear. Texas, with 198 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, 4.8 percent of the total, is the crown jewel of "Super Tuesday," March 8, and as such the key to Gore's "southern strategy." His is the most controversial of all the notions of how to win down here.
The establishment seems to like him and his idea. He has won endorsements from scores of state legislators, including state House Speaker Gib Lewis, present and past chairmen of the state party, and deep-pocket fund-raisers such as Jess Hay of Dallas. But many of the state's best political thinkers -- including Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, Attorney General Jim Mattox and Land Commissioner Garry Mauro -- have expressed skepticism.
"I've been hearing about a southern strategy all my life," said Mauro, who is staying neutral this year. "It hasn't worked for anybody, yet. It didn't work for Lyndon Johnson, it didn't work for John Glenn, and it won't work for Al Gore. It just flat doesn't work. You look at Gore's impressive list of endorsements, and those were the same people who were for Glenn four years ago. It's a big gamble to try to ignore Iowa and New Hampshire. It's like trying to draw to an inside straight."
During the early 1800s, when the Southwest was being settled, there was a famous phrase in Tennessee: "Gone to Texas." They went west for a fresh shot at life, and so it is with Gore. He likes the Davy Crockett analogy up to a point; he does not want this to become his Alamo. Gore hopes he can tap Texas pride to overcome the publicity wave his successful opponents will ride out of the northern primaries.
"Do you think the great state of Texas has to wait until 3 percent of the people in the small state of Iowa tell you how to vote?" Gore thundered this week at the Texas AFL-CIO convention here. "Is that how Texas makes up its mind?"
The answer was a resounding no. But Gore still lingers in the single digits in Texas polls, and it appears that Texas is in fact waiting, like so many other places, before it makes up its mind.
For Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Texas strategy is to have everything in place to take advantage of his anticipated victory in New Hampshire. Gore gets rousing cheers here for his sign-off motto -- "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize" -- but the Dukakis camp is doing the most organizing.
While the other six Texas campaigns are being run by a handful of staff members, Dukakis has 25 full-time paid organizers down here in seven cities -- Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and McAllen. They say in oil-depressed Texas that the Dukakis campaign is the state's third-largest employer: Dukakis Inc., they call it, a new form of the much-ballyhooed "Massachusetts Miracle." But the candidate has not visited Texas as often as many of the others, and his strong opposition to an oil import fee might hurt him.
Four candidates -- Gephardt, Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.), Gary Hart and Jesse L. Jackson -- have come out in support of an oil import fee, and a fifth, Gore, has said he would consider one as the first order of business of a national energy summit conference he promises to hold upon taking office. Only Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, has joined Dukakis in speaking out against the fee, which many Texans believe would help the domestic oil industry.
Babbitt is running a guerrilla campaign here as elsewhere, hoping that his candor will make up for his lack of endorsements and cash. Hart, who once had strong support from the Texas establishment, including Lt. Gov. William Hobby, now has what one neutral analyst succinctly described as "zilcho."
Simon's state organization ranks second only to Dukakis', and he appeared to be an early favorite among the labor delegates at the AFL-CIO convention. Jackson is running here the same way he runs around the country -- hard and on his own, drawing enormous crowds when he is in the state but leaving behind little in the way of organization.
While Jackson, like Gore, is banking on a strong showing in Texas and the rest of the south on Super Tuesday, he criticized Gore here this week for avoiding a national campaign. "I'm not running a one-state 30-yard dash," said Jackson. "I'm running a 50-state decathlon event. I believe we should all run 50-state campaigns."
The decathlon seems to be taking a toll on Jackson. This week, his aides persuaded him to cut short his visit to Texas to return home for a few days of rest. The schedules of all presidential candidates are grueling, but Jackson's has been especially so, and as his deputy press secretary, Pam Smith, said: "He finally agreed that his body needs a rest."
From interviews with delegates at the labor convention, three themes emerged, the first from a sort of silence. Of 20 delegates interviewed from around the state, only one said that he is unhappy with the field of candidates and longs for someone else to get in the race. The others said they are happy with the field. While many political analysts tend to lump Hart and Jackson together, the union representatives did not. Nineteen said they would support Jackson. Only two said they thought Hart could or should win.
Jerry Southerland, a union representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 59 in Dallas, seemed typical. "Totally undecided," he said. "I like Simon's record. My congressman likes Gephardt. Gore is kind of interesting. Whatever Democrat comes out, that's who I'm for, whether it be Simon or Jackson or Babbitt. At least they all seem to be interested in Texas this year, so we'll get to hear plenty from all of them."