Knockout in Texas


MISERY LOVES company, and maybe that explains the kind words Muhammed Ali had for President Ford on "Meet the Press" last Sunday. Ali said he like Ford a lot, though he didn't go so far as to endorse him, since he wasn't sure he was going to vote this year anyway. Still smarting from being whupped by an upstart youngster named Jimmy Young on Friday night, Ali could take consolation in the fact that the judges, who apparently slept through the last five rounds, awarded him a narrow decision. But he was embarrassed enough that he probably had an idea how Ford felt after the Texas primary.

Ford found the voters of Texas more sympathetic to challengers than Ali's judges. He had half-expected to lose in Texas, at least in the popular vote, but he was confident that he would win a sizable number of delegates, and even had outside hopes of matching his opponent's total.

His challenger, a Great White Hope of sorts, was Ronald Reagan, and Reagan was the biggest winner in the Texas primary. His landslide victory on Saturday was truly stunning: he got 66 per cent of the total vote and captured all 96 delegates. He carried every one of the state's 254 counties, losing to Ford in only two precincts. Reagan beat Ford in the rural areas and the cities; he beat him in both Democratic and Republican districts, rich ones as well as poor ones; he beat him in every corner of a highly diverse state. As they say down that way, he turned him every way but loose.

An old Texas proverb says, "God made some men big and some men small, but Sam Colt made all men equal." Reagan may have looked small coming into the Texas primary, but he had the political equivalent of a six-shooter, only better. He persistently won applause for his attacks on Ford's defense policies, especially on the issue of American control of the Panama Canal, which for some reason hit many Texans where they live. It's hard to guess why, since most Texans have never been further south than Piedras Negras, or wanted to.

Most likely, it springs from a deep-seated suspicion of Latin Americans, whose clever perfidy was proven for all time by General Santa Anna's massacre of 179 Texans at the Alamo, which, as you may recall, has not been forgotten. Of course, more than historical antagonisms shape the views of Texans. Many of them would probably identify with the response one cynic gave to President McKinley's professions of affection for "our little brown-skinned brothers" in the Phillipines: "They may be related to President McKinley, but they're not related to me." Chicanos, who make up about a fifth of the population, probably look at it differently, but they don't vote in Republican primaries.

Crucial to the emergence of the Canal issue was Reagan's tough-guy talk. He warned that Ford and Kissinger were planning to turn the Canal over to the government of Panama, and summed up his own position bluntly: "We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we're going to keep it." Though his analysis was weak, his rhetoric was strong, and an electorate only a couple of generations removed from the frontier and the justice of Judge Roy Bean responded instinctively.

THE UNEQUIVOCAL defeat left Ford supporters like U.S. Senator John Tower sputtering in confusion. He blamed it on the thousands of Democratic and independent voters who crossed over to vote in the Republican primary. Texas voters do not register their party affiliation, and are free to vote in either primary when they arrive at the polls. Tower's analysis was correct: over 400,000 voters participated in the GOP primary, almost triple the highest turnout the party has ever had. These were people who normally vote in the Democratic primary, but were disappointed with the pickings on the Democratic ballot and switched parties to vote for Reagan. Not surprisingly, Senator Tower was miffed at his party's primary being decided by Democrats.

Tower thinks that those votes discredit Reagan's victory, but Reagan is likely to make the issue cut the other way. His supporters now claim, with good reason, that the primary proves Reagan's appeal to Democratic and independent voters, who would be essential to a Republican victory in November. Reagan supporters can point to statements like that made by one Ford sympathizer who had forebodings of doom when it became clear that the GOP turnout was huge: "No Democrat would ever cross over to vote for Gerald Ford."

The Reagan camp's interpretation of the results is largely accurate but somewhat exaggerated. No doubt Reagan did attract many Democrats and independents, but a lot of them were voters who regard themselves as Republicans yet always vote in the Democratic primary because, in Texas, that's where 95 per cent of all elections are decided. There are quite a few voters in Texas who have never pulled a Republican lever in a primary not a Democratic lever in a general election. Seeing a bloody free-for-all on the GOP side, most of them probably decided to jump in and get in their licks.

IF REAGAN was the big winner on Saturday, the biggest loser was Senator Lloyd Bensten, who can thank Reagan that things didn't turn out worse. Jimmy Carter soundly boxed his ears in the presidential primary, winning all but five delegates. Carter got 49 per cent of the popular vote, leaving Bentsen with a thoroughly embarrassing 23 per cent, George Wallace receiving most of the rest. The defeat was all the more humiliating because it was Bentsen who had set up the presidential primary--Texas's first--solely to advance his own presidential ambitions.

The only bright spot for Bentsen was his easy victory over a vigorous challenger in the concurrent race for the Senate nomination, getting 63 per cent of the vote. The challenge came from Phil Gramm, a conservative economics professor at Texas A&M;, whose attacks focused on Bentsen's supposed neglect of the Lone Star state in his presidential bid. One TV ad featured two disembodied voices, one of which asked what Bentsen had to show for his six years in the Senate. The other mentioned Bentsen's vote to expand the Voting Rights Act, his support for federal aid to New York City, and his vote to eliminate the oil depletion allowance. The first voice replied pointedly, "I know. But what's he done for Texas?"

Those attacks hit Bentsen where he is most vulnerable, but Gramm did poorly, mainly because of all those people who crossed over. If those 300,000 Texans had voted in the Democratic primary instead, most of them likely would have voted for Gramm. That might have given him enough of the vote to embarass Bentsen.

As it is, Gramm drew blood, no doubt helping Alan Steelman, the Republican Congressman from Dallas who will oppose Bentsen in November. Many conservatives in the GOP are unhappy that Steelman was nominated, viewing him as a maverick with uncomfortably liberal tendencies. One Texas Republican political consultant asked me not long ago, "How the hell can Steelman come out for gay rights, the ERA, and legalized abortion, all in the same speech?" But Steelman is consistently on the Right in matters of government spending and management of the economy--he gets high marks from conservative groups who rate members of Congress--and Gramm's assault will help to solidify conservative opposition to Bentsen behind Steelman.

ANOTHER loser was John Connally, still the most popular politician in the state. Connally has a reputation for political savvy, but lately he has done a lot to dispel that image, starting with joining the Republican Party in the depths of the Watergate scandal. He refused to endorse either Ford or Reagan, probably hoping that the party might turn to him as a compromise. That looks no more likely now than it did last week, and all Connally accomplished was to alienate both Ford, who might have been saved by a Connally endorsement, and Reagan, who owes him nothing. Connally may have learned that nobody wins by refusing to play.

Reagan's campaign has risen from the near-dead, and given his victories in Indiana, Georgia and Alabama, he will probably go the distance. His showing in the upcoming Midwest primaries will determine whether his last campaign will be a victory parade or just a lonely walk through Death Valley. As for Ford, he noted on Sunday that at least he learned to take the shucks of his tamales before eating them. And, like Muhammed Ali, he learned never to underestimate an opponent.