DALLAS A Hispanic schoolteacher who campaigns for the U.S. Senate only on weekends in a battered white pickup truck may shake up Texas politics this year.
Rumors had been flying for almost a month that Victor Morales was running ahead of his two main opponents, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and Rep. Ken Bentsen. On Saturday, the respected Dallas Morning News poll sent tremors through the Kirk and Bentsen camps, revealing that Mr. Morales was indeed the front-runner.
Among 645 expected Democratic voters, Mr. Morales had 24 percent of the support, Mr. Kirk 19 percent and Mr. Bentsen 18 percent, with almost a third “undecided.”
Mr. Morales also was leading in the Houston Chronicle’s latest poll, taken Jan. 30 through Feb. 7 and released yesterday. It had Mr. Morales at 14.6 percent, Mr. Bentsen at 10.9 percent and Mr. Kirk at 10.6 percent, with more than 50 percent undecided.
Mr. Morales was outspent by Sen. Phil Gramm 14-to-1 back in 1996 when he sought unsuccessfully to oust the powerful senior senator, who now is retiring. While the Morales campaign fell far short of victory, 55 percent to 45 percent, it did make his name almost a household word in Texas, particularly among Hispanics.
About 40 percent of the ballots in this Senate primary, set for March 12, will be cast by Hispanics.
A key factor appears to be whether or not Mr. Kirk and Mr. Bentsen can blanket the state with radio and television ads something Mr. Morales cannot afford and if their campaigns are effective.
“I’m not at all unhappy with these numbers. It’s still early,” said Bentsen campaign manager Pat Strong. “No one is up yet on TV. Our support is growing every day.”
Kirk spokesman Justin Lonan called the poll results “good news” and said they obviously had to work on those still uncommitted.
“Twenty-nine percent is a pretty good number of undecided voters,” he said. “We’ll work real hard to introduce them to Ron and spread his message of bringing people together.”
“If the people of Texas do not hear about me running, there is a good chance I will lose,” Mr. Morales said. “But it won’t be because Kirk is better. It won’t be because Bentsen has experience. It will be because people won’t know that I was running.
“I’d bet my truck on that.”
Republican state Attorney General John Cornyn, who has no significant primary opposition, is favored over any of the three Democrats, according to the Dallas News poll.
Even there, Mr. Morales is closest, trailing Mr. Cornyn 43 percent to 38 percent. Mr. Kirk came in at 37 percent to Mr. Cornyn’s 43 percent, and Mr. Bentsen trailed Mr. Cornyn 44 percent to 36 percent.
The fact that several polls have Mr. Morales leading, despite the backing of Mr. Kirk by many leading Hispanic politicans, “should teach Democrats an important lesson about how they go about getting Hispanic support and why it is getting them nowhere,” Ruben Navarrette, a Dallas News columnist, wrote last week .
“For nearly half a century, the blueprint for getting Hispanic votes has been simply to rely on Hispanic leaders and elected officials to deliver them. Now Democrats are about to learn what Hispanics already know the era of the patron is over.”