Generation gap among Dems puts Texas in play

In 1991, Sylvia Garcia joined a number of Hispanic elected officials in Arkansas, where she met a young governor named Bill Clinton, who was considering a White House bid, and his wife, Hillary.

"I remember meeting her then and thinking, 'Gosh, she's so brilliant, she should be running for president,' " Garcia said.

The same year that Garcia helped launch Bill Clinton's campaign for the presidency, Ana Hernandez was in the eighth grade.

Today, Garcia, 55, is a Harris County commissioner in Houston, and Hernandez, 27, is a state House member whose district overlaps the area Garcia represents. Garcia supports Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign; Hernandez picked Barack Obama for "his ability to engage young people."

The women represent two sides of a generation gap clouding Clinton's hopes for a momentum-changing victory in Texas, the biggest prize of the four presidential contests March 4.

On paper, Texas should be Clinton country. The New York senator and her husband have roots here dating back to Democrat George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972, when they helped register Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley. The Hispanic vote, which helped deliver California to Clinton on Feb. 5, accounts for as much as one-third of the electorate in Democratic primary elections here.

Texas is also the second-youngest state in the nation in terms of median age, largely because of the state's booming Hispanic population. Of the 3.6 million Hispanics eligible to vote in Texas, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 31% are between the ages of 18 and 29.

Younger voters are a constituency that appears to be fueling what U.S. Rep. Gene Green of Houston, a Clinton backer, calls "the Obama phenomenon."

Recent polls show the Illinois senator within striking distance of Clinton in Texas, findings not disputed by Clinton loyalists here.

"I'm a Hillary supporter, but I'm just amazed by the support Obama has gotten," said Gordon Quan, a former Houston city councilman and a leader of the Asian community here. "Younger people are gravitating towards Obama. They're infatuated."

Even among women, perceptions of Clinton split along generational lines. "She's cold, and when she's not cold, she's being fake," said Tiffany Van Wagoner, 26, a Houston nurse. Older women, such as Garcia, who have shared some of the same glass-ceiling-shattering experiences as the New York senator tend to see her differently.

Garcia said Clinton reminds her of the piñatas — fanciful papier-mâché figures that enclose clay pots packed with sweets — of her South Texas childhood. "You can beat on her and beat on her, and she doesn't break, but inside she's full of candy. Tiene mucho corazon," the Harris County commissioner said, using Spanish to say Clinton "has a big heart."

Clinton has spent most of her time in the state campaigning in the heavily Hispanic counties that border Mexico, where she worked as a young McGovern volunteer. "The Valley is her base," said Garry Mauro, the chairman of Clinton's Texas campaign.

The Valley is not, however, the richest source of delegates. Of the 193 delegates who will be pledged to support a candidate at the national convention in Denver, 126 will be allocated proportionally according to how candidates finish in the state's 31 state Senate districts. That means a second-place finisher could receive some delegates.

Not all Senate districts are equal: Those with a history of high Democratic turnout will award the most delegates. The biggest prizes among them are two predominantly black districts in Houston and Dallas, where the state senators back Obama, and another in Austin.

Sixty-seven pledged delegates will be chosen in a nominating process that will begin with precinct caucuses on the evening of March 4. That requires an unusual degree of organization by campaigns, which must turn out voters for the primary and for caucuses, and by voters, who must produce receipts showing they voted in the primary to participate in the caucuses.

While early voting in the state's 15 most populous counties is up nearly five-fold over the presidential primary in 2004, records kept by the Texas secretary of State show early voting is almost 10 times stronger than it was four years ago in the black strongholds of Harris and Dallas counties.

There are 35 elected officials and party leaders, known as "super delegates," who are free to vote for any candidate. Clinton has the support of 12 Texas super delegates, and Obama has five.

"They love her in my district," says U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz of Corpus Christi, one of a number of veteran Texas Democrats backing Clinton.

Some Democrats who represent other parts of Texas detect a different attitude among their constituents — one that drives them towards Obama.

"He won't be a drag at the top of the ticket," said Jim Dunnam, the Democratic leader of the Texas House. He hopes a five-seat shift in November will give his party the state House majority.

U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, who represents a Republican-leaning district that includes President Bush's ranch, endorsed Obama in part because he fears Clinton will motivate Republicans to go to the polls.

"Hillary Clinton has been an effective senator and a good person. She doesn't deserve the demonizing," Edwards said. "But the reality in Texas is, many voters already have cast their judgment."

Contributing: Paul Overberg in McLean, Va.