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Texas Democrats look to Obama to help them rebound

Thursday, July 17, 2008

By KELLEY SHANNON, Associated Press Writer

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AUSTIN, Texas — 

Democrats are climbing out of the political graveyard in Texas where George W. Bush buried them. But winning local and legislative races is a far cry from delivering the state for their presidential nominee.

The state's Democratic presidential primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton drew a record 2.8 million votes in March. Just two years after sweeping Dallas County's elected offices, Democrats are threatening to repeat that in Harris County, which includes Houston. And the party is attempting to retake the Texas House by gaining five more seats in November.

With party prospects rising, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean made Texas the first stop on his bus tour of the South designed to boost Democratic registration. The eye-catching bus wrapped in the red, white and blue of Obama's campaign logo traveled Thursday from Crawford, Bush's hometown, to Austin.

There, Dean and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are to speak to Netroots Nation, the influential network of liberal bloggers and organizers, that chose Austin for their annual meeting. The Texas capital, home to the University of Texas' largest campus and a robust community of liberal bloggers, is the state's most liberal Democratic city, derided by conservatives as "The People's Republic of Austin."

"We're down here," Dean told a voter registration rally in Austin, "because we know that if Barack Obama wins Texas or does well enough in Texas to pick up five House seats in the Texas state House of Representatives that we're going to undo all those evil things that Tom DeLay did." He referred to the former Republican U.S. House leader who masterminded a Texas redistricting designed to ensure GOP control of the Legislature.

"Circumstances are certainly improving for the Democrats," said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Players in both parties say the state isn't as assuredly Republican as it was in the 1990s when George W. Bush was governor and Republicans held every statewide office and majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

"Republicans realize the need to work harder and smarter than they have had to in recent years," said Austin-based Republican consultant Ray Sullivan. "The Republicans have had incredible electoral success since 1994. It can't last forever."

Historically, Texas was Democratic. Before Bill Clinton, no Democrat had ever won the presidency without winning Texas. But during the last half of the 20th century, its Democrats increasingly looked more like Republicans elsewhere in the nation. Most of those conservative Democrats switched to the GOP in the 1980s and '90s, including Gov. Rick Perry.

But now, Texas Democratic Party spokesman Hector Nieto said his party can compete statewide. He pointed to the record primary turnout with its increase in Democratic votes from GOP suburbs and rural areas.

The less competitive Republican primary drew only 1.3 million voters.

"We're not going to cede any ground," Nieto said, as Democrats place heavy emphasis on winning state House and Senate seats. "You'll see Republicans playing defense in their own districts."

Sullivan, the GOP consultant, said, "Texas is probably becoming more competitive for Democrats, but Republicans can hold that off with smart campaigning, energized activists and good candidates."

Any Democratic takeover would work its way up from the local level, experts said.

Democrats hope a large turnout for Obama in Democratic Houston will boost local and legislative candidates over opponents who run well in the conservative surrounding sections of Harris County, the state's most populous.

Jillson, the SMU professor, said if Democrats win some county and legislative victories this November, they may become competitive for statewide offices in the coming decade.

This fall, though, the governor is confident of delivering Texas for GOP nominee John McCain. "Is Obama going to carry Texas? No way," Perry said.

Even Democratic spokesman Nieto said that Obama has told state party officials he'll have a campaign presence in Texas as a way to start preparing Texas for a Democratic future.

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Associated Press Writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this story.

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