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Texas Dems' Desire For Party Unity Shapes Clinton's Strategy

An hour after the end of the CNN Democratic Presidential Debate in Austin, Hillary Clinton spoke briefly to Democrats at an after-party in a ballroom of the downtown Hyatt. "I'm going to pledge to you we are not only going to pick a nominee right here in Texas but we are going to lay the groundwork for a great campaign this fall where we will go from one end of this state to the other making the case that it is time for the Democrats once again to get back into office, and you heard me say it before, it took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush and it will take another Clinton for this one."

Hillary Clinton is giving her supporters what they want to hear. And she's hitting the note of party unity, which has been the theme of the evening from all the local Dems speaking in the ballroom. She's massaging the Texas Ego--although people here are a little past hearing that "the road to the White House goes through Texas." Furthermore, this declaration undercuts the valedictory implications the press have been reading into Clinton's "last words" at the debate earlier in the evening. From all indications here on the ground in Texas, the Clinton Campaign is proceeding now with two different strategies.

In her final remarks at the Austin Debate Hillary Clinton has opened a door to going home with dignity and honor. It's a hallmark of the Clintons' resilience that in this fraught time, when they must see themselves assailed, they have hold of the importance of beginning to lay out an exit strategy. "Whatever happens, we are going to be fine," Clinton says. Everyone on the campaign trail, surely including Hillary Clinton, knows that this was an assurance John Edwards asserted frequently (perhaps most of all to himself). In fact, he so commented in two televised debates, on December 13 and January 30. As it was for Edwards, so for Clinton this must be an allusion to the possibility of stepping down--although it's curious that she appropriates an iconic Edwards remark in a debate in which she excoriates Obama for such borrowings.

With a different strategy, however, the Clinton Campaign itself is still out to win this thing. Less than an hour before the Austin Debate, Terry McAuliffe sent an email to Clinton supporters, urging them to log onto the Delegate Hub, designed to help Hillary supporters "cut through all the myths about the race for delegates." Although Hillary herself said in the Austin Debate that the matter of the Superdelegates "would sort itself out," her campaign is not humming que sera sera. "The race is in a virtual tie," McAuliffe writes. "A candidate needs 2208 delegate votes with Florida and Michigan included." No way has this campaign abandoned the possibility of adding those delegates to their tally. Bill Clinton includes Hillary's Florida win in his Texas stump speech. Revealingly perhaps, he doesn't mention Michigan. If that's an indication that the campaign sees Michigan as a lost cause (because only Clinton's name was on the ballot), it's equally a strong indicator that they view Florida differently.

It's far from over for HIllary Clinton in Texas--no matter what the polls and "the momentum" suggest. The most important factor here is the desire on the part of Texas Dems for unity. At last, after so many years of Republican dominance in the state, they have a chance to Turn Texas Blue, and they're afraid that if Clinton and Obama divide the party nationally such a rift will ruin their chances. The Texas Democratic Party is drawing in large numbers of new recruits; the desire to keep them is palpable. Although there is some coolness between Texans for Clinton and Texans for Obama, there is none of the extreme partisanship elsewhere in the country. Typically, a Texas Dem will say, "I'd be happy with either of them for president. And isn't it wonderful we have two such great candidates." This spirit of largesse increases the volatility of the presidential race here. At the Democratic party last night, several young women told me that their friends and colleagues "are wanting to support Hillary to keep her in the race." There's a New Hampshire tinge to Texas right now.

Furthermore, where is the Tejano stampede from the Clinton corral? I just don't see any evidence of a shift in loyalty--yet. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton go way back with Mexican-Americans in Texas. Bill Clinton has been down in South Texas working those ties since the beginning of his wife's campaign. In the past ten days, Hillary Clinton has circled the Valley of the Rio Grande twice while Barack Obama has yet to make an appearance there. (Has he ever in his life been to Laredo and Brownsville?) Clinton has twenty times the number of endorsements from local leaders in the Hispanic community than Obama. Yesterday Senator Edward Kennedy, on a quick swing through Texas for Obama, appeared at Trinity University in San Antonio. The university and the Obama Campaign had prepared for a crowd with a force of traffic cops. However, few people showed for the event; the auditorium was a quarter to a fifth full. Except for a student or two, there were no Hispanics--and this in a very Hispanic city.

These caveats aside, Hillary Clinton, despite garnering the moment of the evening with her graceful remarks that closed the debate, did not in Austin stop the momentum of the Obama Campaign. If anything, Barack Obama is looking more and more presidential. (He may not be "ready on Day One," but he's a fast learner.) Important for the Texas race was the protracted to-and-fro over health care. Until now, Clinton has been able to lay claim to that territory. Last night Obama forcefully contradicted the Clinton assertion that in his health care plan "fifteen million people will be left out." This assertion has been a component of the Clinton ad strategy in Texas, and now those TV and radio spots are no longer going to be as powerful a message. They are, in short, outdated.

HIs remarks on immigration last night marked the real beginning of the Obama Campaign in Texas. HIs comment about discrimination against people with Hispanic surnames, his acknowledgement that people often don't have the money to pay the immigration fees, his mention of his work on the Dream Act and his observation that every American student should be learning a second language opened a door for him last night, as well. This door, by contrast, opens into the national election, when Obama will have the opportunity to return again and again to Texas to persuade Tejanos, who don't know him now, that he understands their concerns and their lives.