- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

DALLAS Ron Kirk, a former Dallas mayor and a Democrat, is banking on two debates in the next five days to pull him close enough to win Republican Phil Gramm's seat in the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Kirk, the first black to run for a Senate seat from Texas, consistently has trailed his Republican opponent John Cornyn in the polls but only by a narrow margin, often fewer than five percentage points.
But with fewer than three weeks before the election, Mr. Kirk's campaign advisers expect he can make up the difference with nonstop campaigning and his charismatic personality.
"He is so sharp," said Emmett Lively, a Houston advertising executive not connected to either campaign. "He comes off friendly, authoritative and at times almost spellbinding."
However, Cal Jillson, a political expert at Southern Methodist University, said that Mr. Cornyn seemed "deliberate" in the candidates' televised debate Friday night, but Mr. Kirk "looked a little out of control occasionally." That debate, the first of three hourlong television exchanges, was in Houston.
A similar debate is scheduled for Wednesday night in Dallas, and the two candidates will travel to Brownsville in the Rio Grand Valley on Thursday for their third debate.
For Mr. Kirk, the good news is that few believe he could actually "lose" a debate. Despite his penchant for talking too much on a topic, the Democratic challenger has a reputation among voters and the Texas news media for effective speaking skills and a flamboyant style.
Another possible advantage: the final debate will be in a Democratic stronghold where many voters are supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez's run against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.
Mr. Sanchez, a wealthy Laredo businessman, already has spent more than $70 million and is thought to have energized the state's increasingly important Hispanic voters. But Mr. Kirk remains behind his opponent, and Mr. Cornyn's backers assert their candidate has much more money to spend in the closing days.
As of Oct. 1, Mr. Kirk had $810,000 available to spend, according to reports filed last week with the Federal Election Commission. Mr. Cornyn had more than $5 million.
"It's clear that Kirk's campaign is almost entirely dependent now on national special-interest, soft money," said Cornyn spokesman Dave Beckwith.
The Kirk campaign said that the figures were somewhat misleading because at least $1 million in Kirk TV commercials already have been paid for but have not yet aired.
In the debate Friday night, the candidates sparred over charges and countercharges each had made in campaign television and radio ads.
Mr. Kirk, for example, ridiculed Mr. Cornyn's closeness to President Bush.
"Mr. Cornyn has spent almost this whole campaign trying to do everything but morph himself into George Bush, and I can't blame him," said Mr. Kirk, "but this election is not a referendum on the president's popularity here in Texas."
He said he would work with Mr. Bush, recalling that, as mayor of Dallas, he had built coalitions with legislators to get things done.
"The only legislature I know that Mr. Kirk has worked in is the Texas legislature lobbying on behalf of Philip Morris," the tobacco company, responded the Texas attorney general. Mr. Cornyn charged that Mr. Kirk had lobbied against a bill that would have inflicted larger penalties against those who sold cigarettes to minors.
Mr. Cornyn also accused Mr. Kirk of enriching himself when he was mayor because his Dallas law firm represented the bankrupt energy giant Enron. "Your firm was paid $180,000, and some of that money found its way into your pocket," Mr. Cornyn said.
Mr. Kirk denied the charge. "You know better," he said. "I never did one bit of work or accepted one red cent from them."
Allen Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas in Arlington, said he has been surprised that the Cornyn campaign has not scrutinized Mr. Kirk's record more as mayor of Dallas.
"He left the city in rather a bad way financially," Mr. Saxe said.


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