EL PASO, Texas — Perched on the back of a pickup truck at a rally for his wife, the former president of the United States paused from his speech, and with a mischievous grin, said: "Think of it as the only time in your life that you'll get to vote twice without going to jail."
It's a line that Bill Clinton delivers at every stop he makes on the campaign trail here in the Lone Star State. Crowds of supporters giggle and cheer as he pokes fun at the state's peculiar electoral system that splits its delegate selection process between a daytime primary and an evening caucus.
He promises supporters who attend the caucuses on March 4 that they'll be greeted with dinner and music. "Think of it as an excuse for a massive party," chuckled Clinton.
But beneath the banter there's apprehension within Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign that Texas' hybrid nominating contest, which allocates two-thirds of its delegates in the primary and one-third in the caucus, could prove to be her last stand.
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Since the Nevada caucuses on Jan. 19, Barack Obama has defeated Clinton in every state that's held traditional caucuses, open meetings that reward grassroots organization and vigorous commitment to a candidate. Clinton could conceivably win the Texas primary but still see her delegate advantage there evaporate if Obama supporters turn out in droves for the meetings held in over 8,000 precincts after polls close across the state.
Bill Clinton paints that possibility as undemocratic and even sinister. "Many people in the other campaign believe that you will elect Hillary in the daytime and they'll come into the caucuses and take the delegates away at night," he tells crowds across the state. "We can't let them do that."
Even as the Clinton campaign maintains that the uncommitted superdelegates should exercise their own judgment on whom the party should nominate, the former president slams the Texas system as a political anomaly that smacks of cronyism and party elitism.
With the last tones of a mariachi band hanging in the air at a rally in Odessa, he launched into his critique. "Frankly, the party leaders set this up," he said. "They knew nobody else would go to these conventions, and they could make sure they had a fair share of the folks that went to the national convention."
"It was never intended to basically reverse the results of a popular election in the daytime," warned the former president. "But it could happen."
What Clinton fails to mention is that in 1992, when he first ran for the White House, Texas and its hybrid system were very good to him. He captured 66 percent of the primary vote over his leading rival that year, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, and won 94 of the pledged delegates at stake in the primary while Tsongas took 31 -- a 3-to-1 margin that Sen. Clinton can only dream about today.
And in the caucuses, which allocated another 69 pledged delegates, Clinton ended up walking away with 63. His campaign outperformed Tsongas in large part because he was supported by many of the "party leaders" -- such as the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party at the time, Bob Slagle, and two of Slagle's predecessors, Calvin Guest and Billy Goldberg -- whom Clinton seems to chastise today.
Turning out the vote
John DeLorme, a Hillary Clinton volunteer from the Dallas area, said that the campaign known for its workhorse diligence will use old-fashioned grassroots outreach to ensure that loyalists turn out the vote. "We are on the phone and we are going door-to-door to reach out and make sure the precinct captains are in place," he insisted. Each Clinton precinct captain is charged with recruiting at least 25 voters to come to the evening event.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said that the state's Democrats have a long and positive relationship with Sen. Clinton dating back to her days as a volunteer registering Latino voters during the 1972 presidential campaign. "She doesn't need a road map to get to our neighborhoods," said Van de Putte, who predicted that Clinton's "can-do" attitude would be rewarded here.
Since the Nevada caucuses, in which Clinton captured the popular vote but lost the delegate battle by one, her campaign has been outhustled by the Obama team, and that may be unfolding again in Texas. Suzette Watkins, 47, is a former John Edwards supporter whose newfound enthusiasm for the New York senator is evidenced by the wardrobe of "Hillary!" gear she sported to Bill Clinton's recent rally in Arlington, Texas. "I volunteered to be a captain" after the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5, she said. "And I haven't had one phone call, one knock on my door, anything."
Watkins is anxious over the shape of her candidate's campaign in the state. "We need more people," she complained. "We're late getting started; we're out of money."
DeLorme acknowledged that the campaign's failure to plan for a post-Super Tuesday strategy has hurt Clinton's overall organization in the state. But, he added: "Since February 5, we've worked really hard to catch it very quickly." The longtime Texas activist remembers the call he got from Clinton organizers in January 2007 as part of the campaign's investment in local loyalists. "With key people, they have had contact since the very beginning," DeLorme said.
Still, turnout for the caucus will depend heavily on voter education about the state's unique electoral process, and a big part of that outreach effort is the man whom Watkins came to cheer on. Bill Clinton, along with daughter Chelsea, have crisscrossed the state to explain the system to voters, urging them four or five times during each appearance to spread the word about the evening caucus and early voting, which is already under way.
Turnout has surged in the first few days of early voting -- especially in some of Obama's strongholds like Harris, Travis, and Dallas counties -- to as much as 10 times higher than the first three days of early voting in the 2004 primary. In presumed Clinton territory like El Paso and Bexar counties, turnout is also up but not as much.
That's not for lack of trying on the part of the Clinton campaign. The former president's rallies in Texas during the past week have often been held just beyond earshot of early polling stations in an effort to get Sen. Clinton's supporters to cast an early ballot. At the crowded rally in Odessa, early voters were even rewarded with choice standing room to get a better glimpse of the former commander in chief.
At rally after rally, the often sprawling message of Bill Clinton's stump speeches has a new laser focus. "Will you vote twice for Hillary?" he roars. "Will you do that?"
National Journal staff correspondent James A. Barnes contributed to this report.