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In Texas, Bush has unlikely struggle

Nothing is the way it's supposed to be in Texas.

George Bush shouldn't even be worrying about the state he claims as his home. But, running scared, he's visited here six times in six weeks.

"And," says the Bush campaign's state chief, "I'm ready for seven."

Ross Perot, for his part, ought to be the reason why.

The pesky billionaire lives smack in the middle of the president's voting base. George Bush's Houston has houses so manicured and grand a sightseer dubbed them "mausoleums for the living." But it is Perot's North Dallas that has traditionally provided the margin of victory for a GOP presidential candidate in Texas.

And this year North Dallas has a candidate of its own.

"There's a homeboy factor," says University of Texas political analyst Bruce Buchanan.

Yet here's Lewis Kravetz, a neighbor of the great man, a retired salesman himself, vowing to throw his vote to Bill Clinton.

Kravetz liked Perot before he dropped out, but: "You just can't do that to people."

And here's Ann Howell, who has done work for Perot's old computer company. She reports to work in the offices next door to his campaign headquarters.

She's leaning toward Bush.

"I like Perot," Howell says. "I just don't know if I want to vote for him for president."

In the year of the odd sock, no state may be tougher to sort out than Texas. With a tri-racial population of 17-million and regional cultures enough for four or five states, it cultivates a political dynamic that's slippery as a matter of routine. Texas has tended to vote Democrat when times are good and Republican when the economy is down _ exactly the opposite of most places.

But with 32 electoral votes in the bargain, presidential campaigns are willing to take the trouble to understand Texas. Only California, with 54 votes, and New York, with 33, loom larger in the electoral college race. And President Bush has scarcely a prayer in either.

Even in Texas, the one state his campaign absolutely cannot do without, Bush was trailing by 25 points after the Democratic convention. He has pulled ahead of Clinton in two state polls taken this week, but his lead lay within both survey's margin of error.

"We're not out here beating our chests about how far ahead we are," says Bush state manager Jim Oberwetter, "but I feel much more confident about it than I did six weeks ago."

Perot's support ranged from a modest 11 to 14 percent. That was significantly less than expected, but plenty enough to please the Clinton campaign.

"He changed it from a race where we originally needed about 51 percent to one where we need only about 45 percent," said Robin Rorapaugh, state manager for the Clinton campaign.

"We're all big time into pluralities here in Texas these days. Thank God for winner take all."

It's a maddening strategy that Clinton has launched in Texas, hanging back, visiting rarely _ but spending just enough to keep Bush rushing back to the one state that should be a lock. Texas has 26 media markets, and the Bush campaign this week was spending baskets of money on TV commercials in every one of them.

"If this comes down to pride, he'll treat it like the Alamo," GOP pollster David Hill said of the president. "He'll die here if need be to save the state.

"I think smart Texas Democrats know that and make just enough noise to keep him coming down here."

The fact is Texas has only three solidly Democratic sections of any consequence:

There is the eastern border region that bleeds into what's known as Arklatex.

There is the central hills that include the capital city of Austin, a liberal university town so politically correct it has "all-natural barbecue."

And there is the Rio Grande Valley. Hispanic voters there tend to vote heavily Democrat, but they must turn out in large numbers to matter. The prospect of that was thought to dim recently when the Hispanic candidate for a state office was found to have faked her resume.

Rorapaugh, however, said the candidate's rough handling by the media may prompt a big turnout as a show of sympathy. The executive director of San Antonio's nonpartisan Southwest Voter Research Institute was also optimistic.

"I'm getting a sense that the turnout's going to be good in this election," said Robert Brischetto. "It becomes more interesting every day."

Even, believe it or not, when NAFTA is mentioned. Texans may not know what the North America Free Trade Agreement actually is. Almost no one does. But polls show they understand that their state, the leading exporter to Mexico, stands to benefit from it, at least in the long run. And so does President Bush.

His most recent trip home was for the pact's ceremonial initialing in San Antonio on Wednesday. While the president basked in the praise of Canada's prime minister, Gregory Garcia squinted at a wall of motorcycle cops across the street.

"The people I talk to, it's Perot or Bush," said Garcia, who owns a little paint and body shop, and who voted for Bush in 1988. This time he's not sure. "The main thing now is to get us out of this situation."

Standing nearby, Alice Ruiz thought of the local Levis plant that had been moved to Mexico. "It caused me to worry, yes."

"Re-elect George Bush," read the sign on a nearby bus bench. "World's Greatest Foreign Policy President."

Which of course is the problem, even in Texas.

In Flat, a tiny town between Austin and Fort Worth, eight of 10 people are unemployed, says Deena Tanner, pausing from coaxing five children into her car.

"People around here are really, really desperate for the economy to pick up," she says, "because there's zilch to do around here." She voted for Bush but is leaning toward Clinton.

So is Charles Sipes, a 22-year man at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, where many in the defense industry are learning the peace dividend may turn out to be an unemployment check.

In fact, the area turns out to be a bigger problem for Bush than the suburbs of Perot. The county's GOP chairman figures Bush needs 55 percent of Fort Worth's votesto carry the state, and it's by no means assured. The president mustered 61 percent four years ago, but that was with the help of Reagan Democrats such as Sipes.

"I didn't get out of Bush what I did out of Reagan," he says.

On top of the defense cutbacks, the city is losing an air base that might have survived under former congressman Jim Wright, the Democratic strongman who resigned in 1989 under a cloud that Sipes, for one, suspects Bush helped generate.

So when the president flew in to announce the timely approval of a $6-billion order of F-16 fighters for Taiwan, the reaction was not all it could have been, even among the people it could keep working for years.

"We've been hit pretty hard and didn't hear anything out of Mr. Bush until election time," Sipes said.

"A lot of us doubt we'll ever build planes for Taiwan."