For Texas Democrats, it was always going to be an uphill slog.
After years of Republican domination in the state, Democrats this year mounted an aggressive challenge designed to regain a share of power in the nation's second-most-populous state.
Their strategy was two-pronged. One part was an ethnically diverse "Dream Team" lineup of moderate, pro-business Democratic candidates -- an African American for the Senate, a Latino for the governorship, a white Anglo for lieutenant governor -- that would mobilize the party's growing minority voting base while appealing to moderate white suburbanites who still constitute the crucial swing vote on Election Day. The other was a massive voter turnout campaign aimed mainly at Hispanics, who have been politically quiescent despite composing 30 percent of the state's population.
But in the campaign's final days, the latest polls suggested what the Democrats always knew: that the GOP still enjoys a substantial edge in Texas that will be difficult to overcome at the polls. And to shore up that edge, President Bush is expected in the state Monday for his third campaign appearance with state Attorney General John Cornyn and other Republican candidates.
In surveys published today in the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle, Ron Kirk, the black former mayor of Dallas running for the state's open Senate seat, trailed Cornyn by 6 to 9 percentage points, but a recent MSNBC-Zogby poll put the race almost even. Tony Sanchez, a multimillionaire Latino banker who is spending about $70 million of his own money to run for governor, lagged incumbent Gov. Rick Perry by double digits in both newspaper surveys.
The polls measured support among likely voters, and Democrats are hoping that means they are flawed. For a large part of the Democratic game plan this year has been to build support among people previously considered unlikely to vote, and persuade them to come to the polls.
They may yet have a chance. Pre-Election Day voting in late October, which is permitted under Texas law, has been very heavy -- perhaps 50 percent higher than in 1998, the last non-presidential election year. Grass-roots groups such as Valley Interfaith, a church-based movement influential among Hispanics who live near the Mexican border, have run voter registration drives that have lured substantial numbers of new voters to the polls.
Still, Sanchez, a political novice who once donated heavily to George W. Bush, appears not to have electrified Hispanic voters. And even if Hispanics do cast ballots for him in record numbers, it is unclear whether they will also support his fellow Democrat Kirk to the same degree. Kirk is counting on a huge turnout by black voters to put him over the top.
"Everything for the Democrats rests on two questions," said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an insiders' newsletter on Texas politics. "Number one, will unlikely voters vote? And number two, will blacks vote for browns and will browns vote for blacks? And there's no way to gauge that" before the polls open.
In the Senate race to fill the seat of retiring Republican incumbent Phil Gramm, it has often taken some effort to distinguish between Kirk and Cornyn, despite their surface differences. Kirk, who would be the first black elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, is gregarious, quick on his feet and energized on the stump. Cornyn, tall and white-haired, is a steady, cautious candidate who has run a nearly error-free campaign.
But both are moderates who favor the death penalty, balk at stricter gun control laws and shudder at the idea of introducing a state income tax. In a debate last month, Kirk admitted to smoking marijuana in college, but insisted he "didn't like it." Cornyn declined to say whether or not he'd smoked. Both painted themselves as pragmatists and problem-solvers who would eschew partisanship in Washington.
Centrist, pro-business and buttoned-down, both candidates seemed to gear their message to white swing voters who still hold the balance of power at the polls. Early in Kirk's run, his campaign officials said the key to success lay in drawing at least a third of white voters, as well as nearly two-thirds of Hispanics.
But if the polls are correct, Kirk has not quite managed to reach those levels of support. And having spent heavily to win a hard-fought primary battle last spring, he has had to struggle to raise enough cash to compete with Cornyn in the homestretch. Even this weekend, Kirk was holding a fundraiser in Houston featuring singer Stevie Wonder and former Texas governor Ann Richards.
The tenor of the Senate race has been genteel compared with the gubernatorial campaign, in which attack advertising began well before Labor Day. Despite his massive cash advantage, Sanchez was thrown on the defensive early by a Perry ad alleging that drug money had been laundered at a Sanchez-owned savings and loan in the early 1980s. A more recent spot suggests Sanchez was indirectly linked to the murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
Sanchez, whose bank was cleared of any wrongdoing, has called the governor a liar. But political analysts say that the negative ad campaign has worked for Perry, who replaced Bush in the gubernatorial mansion when he became president.