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Ground Report: Clinton Campaign Aimless in Texas

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"This is pretty much last minute," Hillary Clinton says to the room full of true believers in a union hall in Houston. "My good friend, your congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee, we were in New Orleans together, and she uh, she said to me, uh, late last night, 'hey Hillary Clinton, you gotta, you know, get over to the southside of Houston. You gotta come to Houston.' I find [myself] accustomed to do whatever Sheila Jackson would do." So on a bit of a lark, apparently, Hillary and Sheila Jackson jaunt from New Orleans to Houston for an impromptu Saturday night mini-rally. Both women are hoarse. Lee, in that matriarchal Maya Angelou way, appears indefatigable. Clinton is animated and bright, with a rosy-cheeked tubercular glow and the glitter of exhaustion in her eye. After a day berating Barack Obama ("Shame on you!") in Cincinnati and making an eleventh-hour appeal to African-American leaders in New Orleans, Clinton still hasn't had enough. The small throng in Houston greets her lustily. Clinton, from fatigue, sounds punch-drunk, but she seems happy, genuinely happy, to be with these Houston supporters.

"It would really be wonderful to have two presidents in the same bed," the Baptist preacher Moderator Williams says by way of introducing Hillary Clinton, who has taken the stage with a small entourage of African-American leaders--not that this show of solidarity means anything to this working class white and Hispanic crowd, all of whom already are ardent fans. And surely this is the last time Moderator Williams, who also brags that he has 150 ministers "under my control," will have the opportunity to share anything with Senator Clinton. But she laughs, seemingly amused, at his remark. "I've never quite stopped to think about that 'two presidents in a bed' before. I guess this is how politics makes for strange bedfellows."

Hillary Clinton says she's been "thinking about strong Texan women," and that leads her to Barbara Jordan, and to a promise to fund NASA and a bit of reminiscence about "when I wanted to be an astronaut all those years ago." For twenty-five minutes she rambles through her February stump speech, every sentence interrupted by wild applause. And then she's gone, after promising that "we'll have a really big event [in Houston] next week." She has yet to see southside Houston. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall just inside the 610 Loop isn't really anywhere--just like the Clinton Campaign this Texas weekend. If there is a strategy for winning here, it is not apparent. The late-night rally is pointless--almost all the crowd has already voted--and even counter-productive. Tomorrow is a phone bank outreach, but having waited in line for three and four hours to see Hillary, many of these women will feel that they've done their job for Sunday, having gone to church Saturday night.

While Hillary has spent an hour in Houston, Saturday her husband has scheduled six campaign appearances from Corpus Christi to Killeen to El Paso. This is a brutal regimen, and perhaps partly for reasons of finance, all the rallies are outdoors, one on a hike & bike trail, the last four in various shopping center parking lots. Both Hillary and Bill Clinton, and even Chelsea, who spoke in Edinburg and Brownsville before joining her mother in Houston, are working South Texas again and again, as if, on the one hand, they plan to make a stand there, and on the other, they don't quite trust the allegiance of their base. Geographically, this strategy, if it is one, looks like a retreat.

The turnout numbers for the first three days of early voting here may have something to do with the difference between Obama and Hillary's campaigns. In South Texas, which is almost 90% Hispanic, the turnout has been half again to twice as high as in 2004. In Dallas, Houston and Austin and their suburbs, however, Democratic primary turnout has been from 400 to 800 percent of 2004. These state senate districts are widely believed to be Barack Country.

At the same time this weekend Barack Obama, having left Texas after a rally of 30,000 people Friday night in front of the state capitol in Austin, has used his surrogates to fan out through the state, both to act as place-holders for him, until he can get there himself, and to lay down markers for a presidency. Federico Pena, a native of South Texas and Bill Clinton's former Energy Secretary, has held town hall meetings in San Antonio, Laredo and El Paso, ostensibly on energy and immigration. Several of Obama's foreign policy advisors have been conducting panel discussions in Fort Worth, Waco, Austin and San Antonio. Senator John Kerry has spoken about health care and Veterans' issues in Galveston, Brownsville and Del Rio. These kinds of events, which Obama has been sponsoring at least as far back as the fall, give the lie to the accusation that his policies are light on substance. On the other hand, these "discussions" are tailored to Obama's temperament, in that they are carried out in his name but he doesn't actually have to sit through them. Likely these meetings are a harbinger of several aspects of an Obama presidency and a warning to mid-level Obamacrats on how they would be used.

Midday Saturday, John Kerry, along with state senator Rodney Ellis, who is campaigning for Obama here, and various proponents of VA reform were the guests of Frontera de Salud, a group of University of Texas Medical School residents and nurses that runs free health clinics in South Texas. The Galveston forum was sparsely attended, and the hope--palpable in the participants who are trying to change the VA--that they would really attack the issues was not fulfilled. John Kerry, having returned from Afghanistan only hours before, had a hard time turning from a jet-lagged account of a near failure of his helicopter up on the border with Pakistan to the fortunes of Barack Obama. In the end, however, he made the switch; like two weeks before in California, he spoke with the spirit and suppleness and ease he should have brought to his own presidential campaign. But Kerry didn't have much time to give the medical community in Galveston, and soon the event was over. The leaders of Frontera de Salud (not endorsing any candidate) rushed to encircle state senator Ellis. "Don't you want to talk to Senator Kerry?" Ellis asked, laughing. "No, no, we've been waiting to see you," they replied, for Frontera de Salud needs state funding. Beyond that, the group wanted Rodney Ellis to convey to Barack Obama that they would like a seat at the table on health care. And so a small piece of the foundation is laid.

This was the day I was trying to get a sense on the ground of the Hispanic vote. Hillary events here can have the atmosphere of cult goddess rites, so it was bracing to speak with people like the UT residents who may vote for her but retain a measure of perspective. Juan Martinez, a third-year resident in cardiology from South Texas, talked to me for a few minutes. He had the news from his family down in Cameron County. "I heard Hillary Clinton had to put out the call and bus in students to fill the stands," he said.