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Ex-Dallas Mayor a Senate Nominee

Politics: Ron Kirk wins a Democratic runoff for the seat being vacated by the GOP's Phil Gramm.

April 10, 2002|From Associated Press

DALLAS — Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk became Texas' first black nominee for U.S. Senate by trouncing Victor Morales in Tuesday's Democratic runoff for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Phil Gramm.

The victory sets up the so-called "Dream Team" for Democrats who hope to use Kirk and Latino gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez to energize their base among minorities in the traditionally conservative state.

With 93% of precincts reporting, Kirk had 333,036 votes, or 58%, and Morales had 238,281 votes, or 42%.

"I feel great, absolutely relieved and exhausted," Kirk said.

Texas has never had a senator from a minority group.

But Kirk faces a grueling battle against Atty. Gen. John Cornyn, who has President Bush's backing, a deep war chest and the advantage of being a Republican in a state where the GOP holds every statewide office.

Because Democrats hold a one-seat edge in the Senate, every close race this year is potentially pivotal.

Kirk said he planned to run a "positive campaign" against Cornyn, though he didn't expect the same from the GOP.

Through a spokesman, Cornyn said he was looking forward to "a vigorous and civil debate on the issues" this fall.

Kirk, the first black mayor of Dallas and a former secretary of state, was the polished party favorite. But in a recent poll, he had trailed Morales, an underfunded, pickup-driving Mexican American schoolteacher who offered himself as a representative of the average Texan. Morales was the party nominee in 1996 and lost to Gramm.

Turnout was projected to be about 6% of the state's 12.2 million registered voters, consistent with similar runoffs over the last decade. Analysts had expected black and Latino voting strengths to even out, leaving white voters to tip the balance.

Regional results showed Kirk won more than a third of the vote in south Texas, where Morales expected to fare best. Kirk led everywhere else except in West Texas.

At a restaurant in Austin, Morales refused to immediately concede and said he wouldn't endorse Kirk. He then took a swipe at Kirk's backers: "I thoroughly, completely distrust the Democratic Party leadership."

Bickering over qualifications and upbringing overshadowed the issues in the runoff, with Kirk painting Morales as an unqualified opportunist, and Morales accusing his lawyer opponent of being out of touch with poor Texans.

Kirk, also a former lobbyist, was handpicked by Democratic leaders to round out a diverse statewide ticket dubbed the "Dream Team."

Party leaders believed Kirk's nomination would bring national attention and money to the race against Cornyn, while Morales' part-time campaign would be grossly overmatched by the GOP nominee.

Kirk, who was little known outside Dallas before he began his run, won endorsements from party leaders as he touted his bipartisan, bridge-building record at Dallas City Hall throughout the campaign.

But Morales gathered popular appeal by pushing his underdog image and his ability to relate to average folks. It echoed his 1996 campaign during which he reached celebrity status by crisscrossing the state in his truck in a long-shot bid to unseat Gramm.

Elsewhere, Denton County Judge Scott Armey lost to gynecologist Michael Burgess in a GOP runoff for the seat his father, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is giving up for retirement.

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