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Pieces of Texas turn primary into a puzzle

When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton issued her gunslinger’s invitation to Senator Barack Obama recently, challenging him to “meet me in Texas,” the question many people here asked was, Which one?
/ Source: The New York Times

When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton issued her gunslinger’s invitation to Senator Barack Obama recently, challenging him to “meet me in Texas,” the question many people here asked was, Which one?

The frontier-conservative Texas of Amarillo, in the Panhandle, where former President Bill Clinton stumped for his wife this month, sharing the civic center with the annual gun show? The vast, immigrant-heavy Texas of Houston, where more than 100 languages are spoken in the city’s schools?

Maybe the one of East Texas, with its Deep South ethos, a region one Democratic consultant described as being more like Mississippi than Texas? Or the profoundly unpredictable one found here, in the central part of the state, among the most heavily Republican areas in the country (and home to President Bush’s ranch), yet represented in Congress by Chet Edwards, a well-liked Democrat who recently endorsed Mr. Obama?

“It’s like running a national campaign,” said one veteran Texas Democrat, Garry Mauro, state director for Mrs. Clinton. “There are no similarities between Amarillo and Brownsville and Beaumont and Texarkana and El Paso and Austin and Houston and Dallas. These are very separate demographic groups with very diverse interests.”

In a 1968 essay, Larry McMurtry wrote that Texas was divided but “not yet fragmented to a degree that would raise difficulties for the novelist.” Forty years later, you could sympathize with the writer, but you should feel really sorry for the presidential candidate, trying to make sense of a state as large as New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina combined, and probably even more diverse.

With recent polls showing that Mr. Obama has cut deeply into Mrs. Clinton’s lead in Texas, or even erased it, the state has become a political battleground to a degree not witnessed in a generation. And the rapidly mounting fight has reminded national political strategists yet again of Texas’ strange largeness — or large strangeness — a state that Congress decided in 1845, the year it joined the Union, might well be later divided into four more states should it consent.

That provision stemmed from the debate over slavery, but it was an acknowledgment of the state’s unwieldy size and stark geographical differences, from prairie towns with plainly descriptive names like Notrees and Levelland to the swamps and cypress forests of the Big Thicket National Preserve in the southeast to coastal towns like Galveston, with old Victorian neighborhoods reminiscent of San Francisco.

“Five Texases is about right, maybe a couple more,” said A. R. Schwartz, known as Babe, a Democrat who represented much of the Texas coast, including Galveston, in the Legislature for a quarter-century. “You could say they’re just physical differences, but they do create differences in the people.”

Even within each region, the campaign calculus can be treacherous.

“My senatorial district was a nightmare,” said Mr. Schwartz, who now works as a lobbyist, describing how he courted coalitions of voters in both densely urban and extremely rural areas, home to family farms and massive oil refineries, with large Hispanic and African-American populations and even a small Jewish one, to which he belonged. “And then you didn’t forget to think about whether you were talking to a Baptist or a Catholic,” he said.

Laid on top of the complicated statewide map, 790 miles long and 660 miles wide at its farthest points, there are others, like the one — studied with scientific precision now by both campaigns — that divides Texas into 31 primary-election districts and apportions delegates according to a formula based on the Democratic voter turnout in those districts in the 2004 presidential election and the 2006 election for governor.

The higher the turnout in a district, the more delegates it has to offer, meaning that urban areas like Austin — where Mr. Obama has been received in recent days with the kind of fervor usually accorded only Willie Nelson — will award a large number. The Austin district has eight delegates at stake, while the district that includes Brownsville, a heavily Hispanic area in which Mrs. Clinton has deep roots as a Democratic organizer, will award only three.

“We have grown men crying over it,” Mrs. Clinton said recently of the byzantine rules of the system, which also includes caucuses, leading people here to refer to March 4 as “primacaucus night” or “the Texas two-step.”

Texas is also separated into 20 media markets, among the most of any state in the country, with the added necessity of buying advertisements in Oklahoma and Louisiana if you want to cover every corner of it. Representative Edwards said that to reach all the voters in his long, irregularly shaped district, he would need to buy air time in five markets.

“I spent $3 million in each of my last two campaigns, and I didn’t even buy media in Houston and Dallas in those campaigns,” said Mr. Edwards, whose recent endorsement of Mr. Obama is seen as significant here because Mr. Edwards is viewed as a coalition builder able to survive in a place where Democrats are few and far between.

One of them is Ben Kerr, 66, a medical clinic administrator in Waco who was eating lunch there Friday at a venerable old diner that serves Tater Tots, shakes and dripping burgers but is incongruously called the Health Camp. Mr. Kerr described living for many years east of Houston in Port Arthur, which he said many people considered the true capital of Louisiana because of its Cajun population. But he now considers himself a man of Central Texas, and as part of a smaller area around Waco with a deeply independent bent.

He said he had not yet decided between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama but was leaning that morning, after watching their debate the night before, slightly toward Mr. Obama. “Change sounds good,” he said. “Washington is just a mess.”

“Maybe Hillary has too much experience,” he added. “Maybe she’s been up there too long.”

Juan Rodriguez, a Crawford-area ranch worker who grew up near Acapulco but has lived in Texas for more than 20 years, is a good example of the area’s unpredictability for the campaigns. He is 38 and by conventional wisdom should probably support Mrs. Clinton, who has the backing of many influential Hispanic politicians in the state. But as he gassed up his pickup, Mr. Rodriguez said he would vote for Mr. Obama, explaining that he found him more knowledgeable and more trustworthy on immigration issues.

Keeping more than one ball in the air
Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas, said that the state had always been a complicated, counterintuitive place to campaign but that as populations and allegiances shifted — more Hispanic voters concentrating in urban areas, for example, reducing their influence in the Rio Grande Valley — the regional differences had become even trickier.

“Some people have wondered, for example, why Hillary has gone to El Paso, which is 75 percent Hispanic, and not spent more of her time elsewhere,” maybe in bigger urban areas trying to fight for votes there, Dr. Buchanan said. “She and her team didn’t see it that way, and there’s undoubtedly a lot of thinking behind it. There are all kinds of these double feints going on now as they try to outstrategize each other.”

Mr. Mauro, the Clinton state campaign director, said the state’s importance to both campaigns was ultimately about much more than delegates. It has emerged as a near-perfect proving ground for Democratic candidates to make the case that they can win in November.

“You’ve got to carry a big, diverse state if you want to be the nominee of the national Democratic Party,” he said, adding of Mr. Obama, “He hasn’t done that yet.”

“So I would suggest he has as much at stake here as we do,” Mr. Mauro said, adding that at least one thing about Texas remained predictable: It has always appreciated a good old-fashioned showdown.

“If you can’t keep more than one ball in the air,” he said, “you don’t deserve to be in this business.”