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Political junkies like myself who had nothing better to do Labor Day weekend were able to fill our time observing and analyzing the results of the Texas GOP straw poll which may give an early indication of how some of the candidates, at least from the second tier, are faring. Thousands of GOP faithful, many of them doubtlessly sporting the finest and most expensive in cowboy fashion, descended upon Fort Worth to attend the state GOP's annual convention and straw poll which took place on Saturday September 1 at the downtown convention center. Thousands of anti-war protesters were also expected. Ironically, dove hunting season in Texas began the same day.
Turnout was light as the top tier candidates including Giuliani, McCain, and Romney did not participate. The main reason is that the Texas primary in March will take place after the majority of the nation's voters will have voted in the earlier primaries. Therefore, the top candidates were campaigning during Labor Day weekend in the early primary states. However, second tier candidates including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and California Congressman Duncan Hunter initially announced that they would participate.
In the contest between Brownback and Huckabee to see who can scream "baby-killers" loudest and win the hatemonger vote, a poor showing by Brownback would have effectively knocked him out of the race since he had already finished behind Huckabee in the Iowa straw poll. The event was significant for Ron Paul because, as a Texas Congressman, this was his best chance to break out from the second tier and establish himself in the mainstream media as the anti-war and pro-liberty alternative to the top tier candidates. He planned to spend a large portion of his limited financial resources to mobilize his supporters and seemed to be the favorite to place first. Paul, operating from his political base, was better organized and energized his supporters with a series of parties and events. He also arranged for buses to bring his backers to the convention from various parts of the state.
The dynamic of the event changed, however, when a few days before the convention Sam Brownback canceled his appearance. Although his campaign issued a statement saying that he had decided to spend his limited resources elsewhere, my guess is the real reason was to avoid another embarrassing loss to his chief rival for the Taliban Republican vote, Mike Huckabee, who announced the previous week he would attend. Delegates at the convention still had reason to cheer, however, as two other contenders for the GOP nomination announced they would attend. Ray McKinney, a mechanical engineer from Georgia, believes he can solve the energy crisis by digging for more oil and building more refineries. Hugh Cort, a psychiatrist from Alabama, claims to be on a mission from God to restore Christian values and defend America from a nuclear attack by Osama Bin Laden.
Soon after Brownback withdrew Mike Huckabee issued a statement that due to a scheduling conflict he would not participate either. This left Ron Paul as the clear favorite to win, the only question being by how much. Although all of the announced GOP candidates appeared on the ballot, the only other candidates scheduled to appear were Duncan Hunter, Illinois businessman John Cox, and the two aforementioned new entrants to the field.
Various antiwar groups also held a rally near the site of the GOP straw poll. Led by a group called Texans for Peace , activities included speeches featuring activist Cindy Sheehan, as well as music, entertainment, games for kids, and an informal "people's poll" on the war in Iraq.
After Brownback and Huckabee withdrew, Duncan Hunter began a major effort to get support from jilted Taliban Republicans. I guess Ann Coulter wasn't available so he dug up Phyllis Schlaflyout of the political graveyard for a conference call with other GOP Neanderthals. Her essential message was that Duncan was the only person who could defend American women from immigrant rapists and American men from gay GOP Senators in public restrooms. Texas Democrats also got into the act when they announced their own straw poll
on the Internet to draw some attention away from the GOP.
Duncan's efforts apparently paid off because out of approximately 1300 votes he received 41% to 20% for Fred Thompson (who was undeclared at the time, and absent from the even) and 17% for Ron Paul. Paul spent more resources than all the other candidates combined, and Texas is his home state, so this had to be a serious setback by any measure.
Paul's supporters had their own spin on the outcome. Libertarian commentator Lew Rockwell stated on his weblogthat Paul's 17% showing was quite good considering that voting was limited to party regulars who attended past conventions, most of whom are hostile to his antiwar stance and opposition to the Patriot Act. He believes that Texas GOP leaders sympathetic to Bush and his neoconservative agenda did as much as they could get away with to prevent a Ron Paul victory which surely would have been embarrassing in Bush's home state. Rockwell also pointed out that Paul's district near Houston is five hours away making it more difficult for his supporters to get to the convention. Another website reported that at least one busload of Ron Paul supporters was denied entrance because they arrived a few minutes past the 10:00 am deadline. Given the relatively small number of delegates allowed to vote, this could have made the difference between a second and third place showing.
Another boost to Duncan Hunter was a key endorsement by popular Texas Congressman Ralph Hall, whose district is near Dallas/Fort Worth. Hall gave a speech to the delegates emphasizing Duncan's support to end illegal immigration stating the latter, "won't only protect our borders, he'll close our borders." Duncan's major campaign issue has been his pledge to build a Tortilla Curtain along the US/Mexican border that would make the Great Wall of China look like a stack of legos. In a state that never forgets the Alamo, this is like feeding red meat to a pitbull.
Based on various news reports and first person accounts posted on message boards, Ron Paul supporters at the convention center greatly outnumbered the other candidates, but among convention delegates who were allowed to vote most of them were party regulars sympathetic to the Bush administration and its neoconservative agenda. The situation is reminiscent of the Democrat convention in 1968 where delegates inside were greatly outnumbered by antiwar protestors outside. In retrospect it appears Paul never really had a chance to pull it off. The way the rules were set up deliberately thwarted an outcome that would have been embarrassing to the Bush administration.
Paul's third place finish in the Texas straw poll on Saturday still has to be a setback to his campaign. The campaign's spin is that the results were preordained because of voting rules. But assuming this was the case, why did the campaign spend as much as they did of their limited resources if they had no hope of winning? That would be like Larry Craig spending a million dollars to win the endorsement of Log Cabin Republicans. They could have skipped the poll on the grounds that it was largely irrelevant and the outcome fixed by nature of the requirements for voting.
On the plus side, the campaign did manage to raise at least $100,000 from various fundraising events. They also got considerable attention from local media, and, if likely GOP primary voters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area did not know who Ron Paul was before the straw poll, they probably know him now. The presence of antiwar protestors led by activist Cindy Sheehan also contributed to the excitement and enthusiasm felt by participants at the event. This synergistic combination of antigovernment libertarians with antiwar protesters could prove to be an interesting factor in the coming months before the presidential primaries this winter.
The above piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here. If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.