Texas is an odd voting mix for Dems

February 20, 2008 2:29:58 PM PST
Hillary Rodham Clinton has been waiting to get to Texas to begin her comeback against a surging Barack Obama. She might be more careful about what she wishes for. Clinton has been banking on the state's large Hispanic population - typically about a quarter of the turnout in Democratic primaries - to give her a victory on March 4. But the Democratic Party in President Bush's home state has a complicated, hybrid primary-caucus that might just be better suited for Obama.

"I had no idea how bizarre it is," Clinton told reporters this week. "We have grown men crying over it."

Unlike other states that allocate delegates by congressional districts, Texas distributes 126 of its delegates among its 31 state Senate districts using a formula based on Democratic voter turnout in the 2004 and 2006 general elections. The 31 districts contain from two to eight delegates. The March 4 primary vote in each Senate district will allocate that district's delegates.

The turnout formula has assigned more delegates to urban centers with a lot of young or black voters that tend to favor Obama and fewer delegates to poorer Hispanic areas expected to favor Clinton.

Austin, which includes the University of Texas, gets eight; Houston gets seven and Dallas gets six.

Clinton has spent most of her time so far in the southern, largely Hispanic part of the state. She has made two trips to Hidalgo County, where the Senate district awards just four delegates. She has left the rest of the state to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who appeared in a dozen cities over the last week in East and West Texas.

But her state director, Ace Smith, said she would travel throughout the state before the primary.

"There are some districts in Austin and Houston he'll do well in that have a lot of delegates. But there are a heck of a lot of other districts that have less delegates we'll do extremely well in," Smith said. "If we run a really strong race in Texas, the delegates are going to take care of themselves."

"We'll be everywhere," he said.

Obama organizer Steve Hildebrand said Obama's momentum and demonstrated ability to win more voters than Clinton will prove more important than the state rules.

"In a majority of the states across the country, Hillary Clinton's candidacy and message has not caught on with voters," he said. "I'm not sure why she thinks voters in Texas and Ohio are all the sudden going to rise to her message. She's not about change; she's not about the future."

Hildebrand said the more people in Texas learn about Obama, the better he should do. He said Obama only got paid staff into Texas a couple weeks ago but now has over 200 people working in about 22 offices.

Another 67 of Texas' 228 delegates to the party's national convention will be awarded based on attendance at precinct caucuses - Texas calls them conventions - which begin 15 minutes after primary polls close at 7 p.m. on March 4. Finally, the state has 35 superdelegates - Democratic officeholders and party officials - are not bound by any of this voting.

Obama's campaign believes the caucuses benefit their candidate, because he has beaten Clinton in caucuses 12-3, compared to his 13-9 edge in primaries.

A poll taken last week showed Clinton and Obama in a statistical tie in Texas, but that was before Obama extended his winning streak to 10-0 with victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii Tuesday night and before he began campaigning here. Clinton got a head start with trips to Texas last week while Obama was in Wisconsin.

Obama is spending most of the week in Texas, rather than the other vital March 4 state of Ohio, where he expects to campaign next week. He held massive rallies in Dallas and Houston, but also planned to tour South Texas on Friday in search of Hispanic support.

He's running ads on English- and Spanish-language television and radio. The Spanish-language ads focus on his biography to introduce himself to voters who may not know him as well as Clinton.

Smith, who ran Clinton's successful primary campaign in California, said the campaign has a three-pronged strategy for success: early voting, strong turnout at the March 4 primary, and a good showing at the caucuses. Only people who voted in the primary are allowed to participate in the caucuses.

The Obama campaign is trying to simplify the process by calling it the "Texas Two-Step," and used former "Dancing with the Stars" and Dallas Cowboy standout Emmitt Smith to promote it Wednesday.

"If we win one we're done, and Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States of America," former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk told a rally Wednesday before confessing he doesn't really understand the party's rules and introducing the football player to explain them.

Clinton communications Director Howard Wolfson said the campaign had been vastly outspent in Wisconsin and other states but that wouldn't be the case in Texas. Clinton's campaign has a large operation, counting 100,000 volunteers and 20 offices around the state.

Clinton is running television ads in which former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros encourages supporters to vote early. Her strategists believe she will capture a large percentage of early ballots. Each county has several locations - like grocery stores and K-Marts - where people can vote early. The Clinton campaign is trying to make sure people know they can vote early and where to go.

Early voting began Wednesday, and Obama too is encouraging supporters to vote immediately.

Ace Smith said there have been many reports of heavy early voting, with people standing in line for 45 minutes or more.