Texas Senate Seat May Change Party Hands

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For the first time in four decades, Democrats have a shot at winning the Texas Senate seat soon to be vacated by Republican Sen. Phil Gramm.

"To see a Democrat making a run for it is just something we haven't seen for a long time," said political analyst Jonathan Smaby.

In a very tight race, John Cornyn, the Republican Texas attorney general, faces former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a Democrat.

Cornyn has a war chest three times the size of Kirk's. However, supporters say Kirk has something Cornyn lacks: pizzazz.

"There's no question all the charisma is on the Kirk side, not the Cornyn side. Republicans are worried about that," Cal Jilson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor, said.

And that pizzazz is translating into poll numbers. In a University of Houston poll last month, Kirk was ahead of Cornyn 36-28 with a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

But it's not wrapped up for Kirk. Observers say that to win, Kirk has to do what he did as the popular Dallas mayor.

"He has to present himself as a moderate pro-business Democrat in the (former Treasury Secretary and Texas Sen.) Lloyd Bentsen tradition," Jilson said.

However, in the course of his campaign, Kirk has not followed that tradition, appearing at the NAACP convention and joining liberals like Jesse Jackson in bashing Attorney General John Ashcroft and criticizing President Bush.

"The president's done very well on the war on terrorism. I think on the issue of civil rights, a lot of us would like to see him apply the same energy to that," Kirk said.

And after saying former President Bill Clinton needed to rehabilitate himself before campaigning for Kirk in Texas, Kirk went to New York for a fund-raiser featuring Clinton as the celebrity guest.

"They used to ask Willy Sutton why do you rob banks, and he said that's where the money is. I'm here to raise money," Kirk said in defense of the trip.

Cornyn has raised big bucks by bringing President Bush and Vice President Cheney back to Texas, but his closeness to the administration has prompted critics to focus on its — and Cornyn's — former ties to scandalized corporations.

"The Enron contributions I've received over a number of years, I've long since given to an employee benefit fund and I've returned all of the funds that I got after I learned, like the rest of the world, about the problems at WorldCom," Cornyn said.

But Texas political analysts say when it comes down to it, Cornyn's problem is not scandals. They say he's boring and the voter's don't know his name.

"Truth is, I've been more concerned with doing my job as attorney general than trying to grab headlines or get my name on TV," Cornyn explained.

If he's in trouble come this fall, in an election where every Senate seat counts, Cornyn can also count on getting lots of financial help from his fellow Republicans. He still has 65 percent of his war chest, while Kirk has spent 75 percent of the money he has earned so far.