Texas candidates struggle for attention

March 3, 2008 6:22:16 PM PST
Texans running for state offices are competing - mostly in vain - for voter attention in Tuesday's primary as the presidential primary race commands center stage.

Democrats and Republicans are on the air and on the stump, seeking nominations for U.S. Senate, Congress, the state Legislature, the state's highest appellate courts, the state education board and local offices in the state's 254 counties.

The most prominent statewide office on the ballot is U.S.

Senate, where four Democrats are competing for the chance to take on Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornyn. Cornyn faces minimal opposition from consultant Larry Kilgore and already has $7 million for the fall campaign.

State Rep. Rick Noriega of Houston, an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel who served in Afghanistan, is the best known and best funded Democrat, though he has less than $1 million with which to campaign against Cornyn. He spent some of it on television ads to fend off Corpus Christi school teacher Ray McMurrey and his spunky outsider campaign.

Perennial candidates Gene Kelly and Rhett Smith also are on the ballot.

Several Texas House of Representatives races are in the spotlight because primary challenges may knock out Democrats closely connected to Republican Speaker Tom Craddick. A number of legislators on both sides of the Craddick overthrow effort in last year's session were facing primary challenges.

Craddick and the Republicans - with help from a few Democrats - took over the House in 2003, giving the GOP control over the state Legislature. Craddick, seen by critics as too iron-fisted, survived the bipartisan attempts to oust him last year, but may not hold on to power in 2009 if opponents win many House races.

In Houston, several Republicans are battling for the nomination in the suddenly open race for Harris County district attorney. The incumbent, Chuck Rosenthal, was forced to resign after a scandal involving the release of dozens of pornographic and racist e-mails.

His heir apparent, assistant prosecutor Kelley Siegler, was expected to win the GOP primary but the scandal has damaged her campaign. The winner will face Democratic former Houston police Chief C.O. Bradford.

Nothing holds a candle in voter excitement to the close Democratic presidential race in Texas between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It's overshadowing everything else, because this is really important," said 18-year-old Lisa Arriaga, a first-time voter.

Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee also campaigned in Texas, though McCain led in polls and appeared close to sealing the nomination.

Voters turned out in record numbers during two weeks of early voting. In some large counties early voting was up at least 500 percent. Far more voters opted to cast Democratic ballots.