Republicans gear up in case Texas is a player

Posted Saturday, Feb. 04, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- With the Texas primary date tied up in a legal battle over redistricting, no one is sure what impact Texas voters will have on the outcome of the Republican presidential race. But that's not stopping Alice Linahan from making calls and rallying the troops.

Linahan, a Tea Party activist in Argyle and one of Rick Santorum's three state coordinators, has been busily laying the groundwork for a potential primary battle in Texas. "We don't know if Texas will come into play with the delay, but it's looking like it could," she said. "What we're doing is preparing."

With Gov. Rick Perry out of the race, Texas supporters of the GOP's final four -- Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Santorum -- are mobilizing in case the nation's second-largest state assumes a marquee role in the selection of the nominee.

While many experts believe that Texas will be irrelevant by the time of its primary, others say it's far too early to automatically dismiss Texas and its huge prize of Republican delegates.

"If there's any life left in the race, Texas could blow wind on the fire," Texas Republican Chairman Steve Munisteri said. "Even if the race is just smoldering, we're going to be a gust of wind that can reignite it."

Originally scheduled for March 6 as part of Super Tuesday, a multistate swath of primaries and caucuses, the Texas primary was changed to April 3 and could be further postponed as courts in San Antonio and Washington wrangle with legal challenges over redistricting plans for the state's congressional and legislative districts. Other prospective dates are April 17, May 29 and June 26.

There has been talk of holding the presidential primary separately from the legislative and congressional elections, but a number of experts say the cost of conducting separate elections would be prohibitive.

The uncertainty over the primary date -- as well as the increasing perception that Romney, the GOP front-runner and a former governor of Massachusetts, has the nomination all but sewn up -- stokes the argument that Texas will be on the sidelines in the nomination sweepstakes. But Munisteri says other factors may keep the race going longer than expected, making Texas a crucial resource for the remaining field of competitors.

The end of the trail is the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August, where Republicans will crown their nominee. Texas is second to California in the number of nominating delegates and has at least twice as many as nearly every other state. California, with 174, and Texas, with 155, account for about 26 percent of the 1,245 delegates needed to win the nomination.

"This could go on long enough for Texas to have a say," Tarrant County Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Hall said.

Munisteri, a retired Houston attorney, says developments in the nomination process could slow the race, increasing the potential for an influential Texas role.

For one thing, he says, many states have abandoned winner-take-all rules, meaning a candidate gets only the percentage of delegates tied to his proportion of votes, rather than the entire batch. Moreover, early states New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida were each penalized with the loss of half their delegates for staging their primaries earlier than the Republican Party schedule called for. Florida's count, for example, went from 100 to 50.

Perry pushing Gingrich

Even without Texas, Super Tuesday could give candidates other than Romney a chance to pick up victories or have strong showings. Ten states hold primaries and caucuses that will produce the biggest single-day chunk of delegates in the nomination race.

Former House Speaker Gingrich, for example, is strongly favored in his home state, Georgia, which has 76 delegates. Romney's opponents are also looking for targeted strong showings in states beyond Super Tuesday in hopes of staying in the race.

"You've got a lot of other states out there," Munisteri said. "So if this is a protracted process, then, yes, we could be a huge player."

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said the impact of the Texas primary will be difficult to gauge until after Super Tuesday.

"For one thing," Henson said, "it depends on when it is. Texas will have a lot of delegates, but if it comes too late in the process, it's hard to think of Texas as being decisive."

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Texas "is unlikely to play a major role" since Romney is beginning to look more and more like the nominee and could soon build an insurmountable lead.

The political dynamics in the Texas primary -- regardless of when it's held -- changed dramatically after Perry ended his bid and endorsed Gingrich, a longtime ally who wrote the foreword to Perry's book Fed Up. Although Perry and his campaign team haven't announced a precise strategy for helping Gingrich in Texas, the state's longest-serving governor is expected to at least make behind-the-scenes phone calls to help.

Two of Perry's top political advisers, Rob Johnson and David Carney, served as Gingrich advisers before leaving his campaign and becoming top strategists in Perry's presidential bid.

North Texas focus

Romney has made repeated appearances in Texas and retains a reservoir of support from his 2008 presidential campaign. Leading supporters in North Texas include members of Fort Worth's Moncrief family and Fort Worth attorneys Dee Kelly Sr. and Dee Kelly Jr.

"There are a lot of folks who have been supporting him for a long time," the younger Kelly said. "That changed a little bit when Gov. Perry got in the race, but now that he's out, a lot of them are coming back" to Romney. "He's got a pretty good group of folks working in Texas."

Civic leader Kit Moncrief, who is helping coordinate Romney's support in North Texas, said Romney's wife, Ann, is scheduled for a tea at a private home in Dallas on Feb. 23. The candidate is expected to visit Texas in March, she said.

Santorum, who is competing with Gingrich for evangelicals and social conservatives, who make up as much as 60 percent of Texas' primary vote, will be in North Texas on Wednesday in a daylong series of events organized by Linahan and other key supporters. The first event is a 9:30 a.m. meeting with more than 160 pastors in the Bella Donna Chapel in McKinney. Santorum is also scheduled to speak at 7 that night at a rally at Plano's Fairview Farms.

Paul, the only Texan in the race after Perry departed, has well-entrenched support from libertarians and Tea Party activists. In a mid-January straw poll of Tea Party groups in Houston, Paul won overwhelmingly with 54.4 percent of the vote.

Lone Star history

With its size and delegates, Texas could always be a kingmaker, but in many past contests, the race was over or effectively over by the time of its primary. Sometimes, though, Texas has had a huge impact.

In the 1976 primary, Texas Republicans gave a surprise victory to Ronald Reagan, re-energizing his struggling campaign and enabling him to challenge President Gerald Ford all the way to the national convention.

In 2008, Texas was a critical battleground between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination; Clinton won the primary, while Obama received more support in the party's caucuses.

On the Republican side, Texas, along with three other states, enabled U.S. Sen. John McCain to cinch the 2008 GOP nomination.

"Texas is normally not a player, and ... people are assuming Texas wouldn't be a player based on past experience," Munisteri said.

But "Texas could be in this one."

Dave Montgomery,

512-476-4294

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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