PHARR, Texas – Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett (search), forced to run in a new and unfamiliar district after the Republicans redrew Texas' congressional map to their liking, is up against a judge in Tuesday's primary.
But his REAL opponent, he tells the voters, is U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search).
It was DeLay, a Texas Republican, who played a major behind-the-scenes role in the redistricting battle that could give the GOP seven more congressional seats and break the Texas delegation's 16-16 split. The new map was adopted by the GOP-controlled Legislature last year after months of turmoil that included two out-of-state walkouts by the Democrats.
Texas Republicans had hoped to drive out at least two Democratic incumbents, Doggett and Rep. Chris Bell of Houston, by making their districts more Republican. Instead, both men jumped to two heavily Democratic districts. Under Texas law, a candidate does not have to live in a district to run in it.
Doggett, a former Texas Supreme Court justice who has fashioned a career as a gadfly of the Republican leadership, chose District 25.
The district, sometimes called the Fajita Strip (search), stretches like a thin ribbon from Austin's Hill Country to the Rio Grande delta along the Mexican border. It is 350 miles from north to south and about 25 miles at its widest point. It consists mostly of ranch land and is 60 percent Hispanic.
"God couldn't win in that district as a Republican," said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.
Doggett faces state District Judge Leticia Hinojosa, who is Mexican-American, for the Democratic nomination.
"My real opponent in this race is not here tonight," Doggett said in a recent campaign speech. "His name is Tom DeLay. He's the one who set out to eliminate me from Congress and I'm here to see that his goal is not fulfilled."
It was DeLay who brokered the final redistricting plan last fall.
Doggett, 57, has a $2.2 million war chest, making him one of the best funded candidates in Texas. In 1999, he became the first Texas Democrat appointed to the Ways and Means Committee. He has voted against most of Bush's major proposals and has a strong pro-union voting record.
"You name it, most of the proposals and platforms of the Bush administration that were rammed through the house, Doggett was a thorn in their side," said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas-Austin. "He's a relentless and effective opponent of theirs back in D.C. right now, and they'd love to show him to the door."
Bell, a freshman member of Congress, is running in Houston's District 9, where about 66 percent of the voters are black or Hispanic. Bell, who is white, faces two black candidates in the Democratic primary: Al Green, a former Houston NAACP (search) president, and lawyer Beverly Spencer.
Race, not party, is a key issue that could hurt Doggett in the predominantly Hispanic district.
"Do they go with a guy who is an Anglo but has proven to support their issues, or do they go with a rookie who happens to have their ethnic identity?" asked Buchanan, the University of Texas-Austin professor.
Hinojosa campaigns as a hometown candidate who says she understands the South Texas voters. "I'm going to speak your language in Washington," she said at a recent rally. "Don't tell me about not having experience. I have been fighting my whole life."
Still, a recent campaign appearance by Doggett could provide a clue about his chances in Tuesday's primary. Even though he was the only white candidate - and the only one who needed a translator - at a United Farm Workers convention in South Texas, he still won the endorsement.