- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

Polls show Republican John Cornyn has a narrow lead over black Democrat Ron Kirk, who has made a series of missteps in a racially tense contest to fill the seat of retiring Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

Mr. Kirk raised the issues of race and ethnicity last month, opening himself to criticism in the press and from the Cornyn campaign and apparently alienating some Texas voters.

The most recent poll, taken last month for the Houston Chronicle, shows Mr. Cornyn, the state attorney general, ahead by 37 percent to 31 percent in the Senate race. But Republican confidence is tempered with a fear that, in the end, the Democrats will find a way to play the race card again more effectively.

"We know we are up by about 6 percentage points, which is not completely comfortable," said Cornyn campaign spokesman David Beckwith.

Kirk spokesman Robert Gibbs said a survey sponsored by Democrats has Mr. Kirk leading. "The polls are all over the place. It's clearly a competitive race and will be all the way to Election Day," Mr. Gibbs said.

The Kirk misstep came on Sept. 13, when the former Dallas mayor said he supported President Bush on a war against Saddam Hussein but added that blacks and Hispanics, rather than the offspring of rich, white Americans, would be the ones fighting in Iraq.

The Cornyn campaign responded with a TV ad alluding to the Kirk statement and concluding: "Ron Kirk: not ready. Too liberal for Texas."

Mr. Kirk later apologized, saying he had "no intention of offending anyone, particularly those who serve or, like my father, have served this country."

But the incident gave some credibility to the Cornyn campaign's claim that Mr. Kirk is "far more liberal than he is trying to portray himself and he may not be ready for prime time."

Republicans are keen to hold the Senate seat in Mr. Bush's home state. If Republicans can't keep Mr. Gramm's seat, it will be more difficult for them to pick up the net gain of one seat required to retake Senate control.

Republican campaign advisers in Texas say they expect Mr. Kirk to play the race card again, as part of a TV ad blitz just before Election Day.

The tensions over jobs and political influence between black Texans and the growing Hispanic community are foremost in the minds of campaign strategists for both parties. But Republicans, in private discussions, are wary of attempting to exploit those tensions.

The Cornyn campaign, with the help of the state and national Republican parties, used about $4 million to build the candidate's lead. As of the first of this month, the Cornyn campaign had $5.2 million in cash on hand, in hard "federal" dollars that can be spent directly on electing Mr. Cornyn.

The Kirk campaign is believed to have roughly half that amount but has not yet filed a report with the Federal Election Commission. With Sen. Robert G. Torricelli's defunct campaign in New Jersey no longer soaking up national Democratic resources, the Kirk campaign expects some of that money to come its way.

Last week, the Kirk campaign reserved $4.6 million worth of TV ad time for the last four weeks of the campaign but on Wednesday canceled the first week's buy and said it would spend the full amount in the last three weeks.

That shift which Republicans say suggests Mr. Kirk is planning a massive attack-ad strategy has the Cornyn campaign worried. Kirk campaign manager Carol Butler "did that exact same thing" in 2000 when she managed Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow's successful campaign against Republican Spencer Abraham in Michigan, Mr. Beckwith said.

Mr. Kirk is counting on Hispanics to come out big for Tony Sanchez, the Democratic candidate for governor, a wealthy businessman who is expected to spend up to $70 million of his own money to defeat Republican Gov. Rick Perry. The Kirk campaign hopes that if Hispanic voters pull the Democratic lever for Mr. Sanchez, they will pull it for Mr. Kirk too and vice versa, with Mr. Sanchez benefiting from a surge of black voters.

So far, that synergy for the Democrats' dream ticket hasn't shown up in polls, and some analysts in Texas suspect part of it is because of tensions between Hispanics and blacks in the state.

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