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Dems expect gains from Obama’s Texas trip

President Obama will get a Texas twofer next month when he headlines the Presidential Forum on Service at former President George H.W. Bush's library — a bipartisan photo-op plus a chance to aid state Democrats itching for national political relevance.

Texas Democrats — bolstered by party officials who think the Lone Star State is within reach — say Mr. Obama's Oct. 16 visit to Texas A&M University will energize volunteers working to win back the Statehouse.

"There's good reason to believe Republicans won't be able to take Texas for granted like they have in the past," said Kirsten Gray, spokeswoman for the Texas Democrats.

Texas Republicans aren't real happy Mr. Obama's heading to their turf, especially for an event that will put him alongside one of the state's favorite sons — Mr. Bush — and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a Republican and one-time president of Texas A&M whom Mr. Obama kept in his Cabinet.

"We do understand the actual purpose of his visit is nonpolitical, and we hope he keeps to that, but [Mr. Obama] tends to politicize everything he touches," said Bryan Preston, a spokesman for the Texas Republican Party.

"This is a chance to deliver a message to him personally — hands off Texas. I'm not one to dance around semantics, it will be a protest."

The forum marks the 20th anniversary of Mr. Bush's inaugural address and call to action that led to the Points of Light Institute, the country's largest volunteer-management and civic-engagement organization.

Points of Light Foundation Chief Executive Officer Michelle Nunn said Mr. Bush invited the new president to attend because they share a "deep passion" for service.

"There are many things that unite us, and President Bush and President Obama coming together will symbolize that in a powerful way in a time when the country is looking for that bipartisan leadership and message," Ms. Nunn said.

An invitation says the forum aims to "engage the audience to share their inspiration and ideas for innovation in volunteerism while creating momentum and excitement for the service movement around the country."

Tony Fratto, who served as a George W. Bush deputy press secretary, said presidents often choose one signature issue with potential for bipartisanship. His former boss was widely recognized for putting partisanship aside for his AIDS, initiative, the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief.

Mr. Obama has been smart to make service his key issue, Mr. Fratto said.

"Presidents always want to have something to brandish bipartisan credentials," he said, "and with Obama, it's clear that on very big policy issues there is not a sincere bipartisan effort going on."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president has long admired Mr. Bush and they share the belief that "serving one's community is a core American value which transcends the partisanship that too often dominates public life in Washington."

Some of Mr. Obama's first actions were creating a United We Serve project and signing a new law that dramatically expanded national service.

The free, 90-minute event is designed to honor the senior Mr. Bush and also will celebrate civic and philanthropic leaders and the contributions of more than 4,500 Daily Point of Light Award winners.

Organizers said the 41st president believes public service is central to a meaningful life.

"Service is shared across differences and certainly transcends party lines," Ms. Nunn said.

The forum also will showcase the advances of service under the Obama administration.

Aides said Mr. Obama's schedule just has him touching down for the Bush forum and then leaving the same day, though the state party hopes he sticks around for a town hall or political fundraiser.

Texas may seem deep red, but Democrats think it's getting bluer.

"I always believed that we can win Texas in 2012," former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told The Washington Times.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine told Democrats earlier this month they have a steep climb because the second President Bush was re-elected in 2004 in Texas by 23 points.

"Then came 2006 and a Democratic resurgence. Now the Texas Democratic Party is one of the best organized in the country," he said at the party convention, which he chose to hold in Austin to showcase the party's potential in the state.

Mr. Obama lost to Republican Sen. John McCain 55.5 percent to 43.8 percent last fall, in part because Republicans spent little money in the noncompetitive state. Democrats added to their numbers during the hard-fought primary contest between Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton — when 2 million of 2.9 million primary participants were first-time voters.

The party recently has made gains in Congress and the Statehouse, where they are two seats from recapturing power. Ms. Gray said she thinks the Obama visit will boost morale.

She said national Democrats who once scoffed have shifted their tone since noticing the state's gains and are putting money behind the possibility. The DNC has placed dozens of paid staffers in Texas.

As for the Democrats' hopes of winning back Texas, Mr. Preston said he isn't worried.

"That's almost funny at this point. They are tilting at windmills since this one of the reddest states in country," he said.

Nevertheless, the trend is encouraging for Democrats, who once enjoyed winning Texas.

Mr. Obama won four of the state's largest counties and was the first Democrat to win Harris County since 1964.

About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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