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Law Allows Senator to Run 2 Races : Conservative Texas Voters Can Get Bush and Bentsen

November 04, 1988|KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writer

PARIS, Tex. — Cathy Zachary likes Sen. Lloyd Bentsen so much she's voting against him for vice president.

"He's a fine man, and he's got a good record," said Zachary, who attended a Bentsen rally Thursday at Northeast Texas Community College. But "my husband works for Lone Star Steel," she said, and the steelworkers need more protection from imports. She would just as soon see Bentsen stay on as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which puts him in an ideal spot to provide it.

Thanks to a quirky state law, Texas voters next Tuesday will have a chance to vote for Bentsen twice--once at the top of the ballot, where he is Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' running mate, and again just below, where he is pitted against a little-known congressman in his race for a fourth Senate term.

Enormous Boost in Texas

Bentsen's presence on the national Democratic ticket has given the party an enormous boost in Texas. Without him, both sides agree, Dukakis would almost certainly have been buried in Bush's Texas landslide.

As it is, Democrats say their internal polls show they are trailing by seven percentage points in Texas. Other surveys have shown the Republicans with a two-digit lead.

By running two races at once, Bentsen has allowed many of his conservative supporters to have it both ways: They can elect one Texan, George Bush, to the White House, without losing as senator the man whom polls rank as the state's most popular elected official.

Dukakis strategists dismiss suggestions that his dual role has limited Bentsen's effectiveness as the national ticket's biggest asset in Texas. "The focus of all his campaigning is not the Senate, it's the White House," said Tom Cosgrove, Texas state director of the Dukakis-Bentsen campaign.

Bentsen argues that his power would be greatly enhanced if he were elected vice president. "If you can be a trusted adviser to the President of the United States, you're in a position to make a difference," he said Thursday. "Then you only have to try to influence one vote. In the Senate, I always have to try to influence 50 of them."

But Connie Hudson, an independent geologist from Mt. Pleasant, does not see it that way, especially considering how Dukakis and Bentsen disagree on issues that range from Contra aid to the death penalty.

"Dukakis would go his own way," Hudson argued. "Quite frankly, I would rather have Bentsen there as senator than as vice president, because I don't think he would be very effective as vice president."

Added Don Dickerson, a Paris recreational vehicle dealer who said he already voted absentee for both Bush and Bentsen: "I think Bush and Bentsen's philosophies are basically the same. Bentsen and Dukakis' philosophies, both of them are opposed to each other."

Bentsen's campaign Thursday was a 203-mile "bus brigade" through East Texas. Unless Democrats can win back this conservative area, where legions of Democrats have defected to the Republicans in the last two elections, they have almost no hope of carrying the state and its 29 electoral votes.

Not once did Bentsen mention his Senate opponent, two-term Rep. Beau Boulter of Amarillo, in part because federal campaign law requires that the two campaigns remain separate.

Little Senate Campaigning

But another reason is that he simply has not had to pay much attention to Boulter. With a 25-point lead in the polls--and having raised $7.5 million to Boulter's $2.7 million this year--he is not sweating reelection. Outside of appearing at fund-raisers, Bentsen has spent relatively little of his time campaigning for his Senate seat.

Bentsen can run for both offices simultaneously because the Texas Legislature rewrote state campaign laws in 1959 to accommodate the presidential ambitions of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. By the time the 1960 election rolled around, Johson found himself in the same spot as Bentsen is almost two decades later.

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