Texas Time

We've been waiting for y'all.

Like the great big kid in the back of the classroom who has gotten used to being overlooked, Texas has not had a chance to make a difference in the presidential primaries for decades. This year, suddenly, we're hot stuff. Our primary on March 4th is going to mean something -- maybe everything -- in the Democratic race.

And in a campaign where voters are already defying some of the old demographic breakdowns, Texas promises to give the pundits and campaign planners a run for their money, beginning with the most basic characterizations.

Texas is not the South. It is not the West. It is not the Southwest.

Texas is all those things, a heady blend of magnolia blossoms and masa harina; a place big enough and complicated enough to treasure both the Alamo and the dreams of millions whose lives began in Mexico. It has memorials to Civil War heroes and civil rights legends, border towns without running water and the latest thing from Barney's.

Texas is home to both big oil and big hair; sometimes to big, oily hair.

It is a warm, fun-loving, forgiving state, the kind of place where the vice-president can shoot someone in the face and the victim apologizes.

Clearly, it isn't easy to embarrass Texas. But it appears George W. Bush has finally done it. In a stark change from the public's attitude here a few years ago, now there are bumper stickers on family cars in grocery store parking lots that proclaim "Bush wasn't born here" and "George W. Bush is a failure."

The rest of the country may figuratively turn disgraced politicians into piñatas, but in Texas, the transformation is literal. In fact, a party store in Austin will custom-make a George W. Bush piñata for you for only 23 dollars. Don't ask how I know this.

For Republican candidates in Texas, the president's precipitous fall from favor has made a particularly big splat. In 2006, voters in Dallas rejected every contested Republican officeholder on the ballot.

And if the GOP primary turnout on March 4th is low, it will be due to a combination of this Bush fatigue and the fact that the race is, as usual for Texans, already decided. It won't be because Rush Limbaugh doesn't like the leading candidate or because Romney decided to take his wallet and go home. It's that this year is not much fun for former Bush voters. Many Texas Republicans are no longer enjoying the party.

For those who hang around and actually vote in the primary, Huckabee will be attractive. He is witty and engaging, relatively gentle on immigration and religious as hell. I don't want to be accused of hitting below the Bible Belt on this, but the creation of the earth is still a source of argument among some Texans. The ground here may have given up some of the world's best specimens of dinosaur fossils, but state school officials are still under siege by parents who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that carbon dating means taking a girlfriend to the Texas A and M bonfire.

McCain will probably do better in Texas than in other conservative parts of the country. The very elements of McCain's candidacy and personality that have conservatives and the religious right so righteously peeved at him will actually play well for him here. Most Texans, including the Republican governor, don't want a wall separating us from Mexico. And any hothead who uses the "F" word not only won't be rejected, he is gonna fit right in.

While the state's favorite (step)son Ron Paul probably won't be much of a factor in the primary, many Texans feel a perverse pride in his success. Paul is a natural outgrowth of Texas's deep libertarian streak, the only person in the Republican party with the guts to stand on stage in every debate and in a nasal twang commit a kind of blasphemy by constantly and eloquently criticizing the war and the president who put us there.

The Democratic race is going to be more complicated and more unpredictable because both candidates have huge built-in constituencies, good organizations and giddy support. Texas Democrats are almost hysterical at the heart-pounding possibility that the rest of the country will at long last pay attention to what they think. In addition to all that, no one knows how the hell the delegate count is actually going to work.

In typical Texas contrarian fashion, the primary rules read like a DNA chart. On the Democratic side, 228 delegates are up for grabs. But it's not that simple.

The state has both a primary and a caucus -- on the same day. And you can't caucus unless you voted in the primary. On primary night, 126 delegates will be determined based on voting results in each Senate district.

The number of delegates in each district is based on how many Democrats voted in the last two general elections in that district. Got that? Well, there's more.

The selection of another 67 delegates will begin at the caucuses that night and culminate at the state convention in June. The remaining 35 delegates are some kind of unique political life form that will evolve into actual delegates at the National Convention later that summer.

With rules like this, we may not know the division of Texas delegates until sometime after the new President is sworn in. Now that the state finally has its moment in the spotlight, it appears we will slowly drag our rear ends across the stage and reveal our delegate counts only when we are good and ready.

But as Democratic campaign workers and organizers flood the state in the next few weeks, they will find a pool of voters ready to rumble. Texans are ready for their close-up.

The candidates are already familiar faces. Barack Obama has been here raising money and making friends since long before he announced his candidacy. Hillary Clinton actually lived in Austin in 1972 while working for George McGovern. She knows the state and has racked up an impressive series of endorsements.

Hillary seems to be ahead in early polling. Texans, despite the state's conservative reputation, have never had any discomfort with women taking the reins. Texas women have been changing the world for a long time.

That creates a special challenge for Hillary Clinton.

Down here, she will have to live with the ghosts of Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards, Molly Ivins and Lady Bird Johnson. She will have to prove to voters that she has more in common with these iconic Texas political figures than with Ma Ferguson, the state's first female governor. Ferguson took over in 1925, several years after her husband was run out of office.

Actually, Hillary Clinton is nothing like Ma Ferguson. They have nothing but body parts in common. Still, by making that comparison, I get the chance to use a hilarious quote attributed to Ferguson during a debate on the use of Spanish in Texas public schools. She exhorted the state to require English, saying, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it is good enough for the children of Texas."

Which brings up another point. Texans expect candidates to be entertaining. They can be funny like Ann Richards, a charming rogue like Charlie Wilson, or personable like George W. Bush used to be.

Obama has that -- and something more. For Texans old enough to remember, he recalls Barbara Jordan -- not because of race, but because of the power of the spoken word. Decades ago in her campaigns for Congress, in small towns and large cities, in front of crowds who gathered at courthouses and on street corners, she became a political legend by reminding people of why they loved their country. She led old men in sweat-stained cowboy hats to weep openly at the beauty of the Constitution, the power of the American people, the depth of our belief in our own inherent decency.

Texans are still like that. They still like good speeches. They still like to cry in public. And they will always love politics.

To win in Texas, Democrat or Republican, there is really only one rule. Don't be dull. We certainly won't.