Houston Voters Split on Candidates

The tight race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has put the pressure on voters in Texas, which holds its Democratic primary on Tuesday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

And the next big primary contest is coming up on Tuesday in Texas and Ohio. Hillary Clinton had a 20 point leads in both states a month ago, but Barack Obama has caught up in Texas and he's narrowed the gap in Ohio, even as most national polls now show him out front of Clinton.

All that adds real suspense to the decisions voters will make next week. NPR's Linda Wertheimer went to Houston to talk to some of those voters.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: In Houston's mostly black Third Ward there's considerably excitement about the possibility that Texas may make an African American the Democratic nominee. We talked to a group of community activists at Project Row House, which was started by artist Rick Lowe. Project Row House is a local effort to rejuvenate a traditional community.

Mr. RICK LOWE (Started Project Row House): This is the area that we're focusing on, but this is a distinct, different kind of neighborhood.

WERTHEIMER: Akua Fayed(ph) is a local artist active in this project. She feels this is a new time.

Ms. AKUA FAYED (Artist, Project Row House): It's almost prophetical. It's almost biblical. It's almost spiritual. And it's time for a change.

WERTHEIMER: Akua Fayed likes Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer. She thinks he's seen for himself where healthcare and education policy falls short and will know what to do. She said she'd just been to his campaign headquarters.

Ms. FAYED: And I chose to go to the one where all the white folks are going as opposed to going to the one in the hood, simply because I want to be there to get the feel. And it's the most wonderful feeling you can get to sit with people that don't look like who's talking about somebody that looks like you and say I want that person to be in charge.

WERTHEIMER: Several of the people we talked to had considered Hillary Clinton but said Obama was irresistible. They talked to small children, whose first idea of a president would be an African American. And they brushed aside all criticism, including Clinton said Obama's speeches contain no substance.

Marlon Hull works for a grassroots Christian movement.

Mr. MARLON HULL (Works for Christian movement): You have a candidate who's speaking of this abstract concept of hope. It's something that you can't touch. It's something that you can't clearly articulate in public policy. It's sort of like we're imagining something that we've never seen before.

WERTHEIMER: A student at the University of Houston, Lashaik Matterson(ph) completely rejected the idea that Obama is short on specifics.

Ms. LASHAIK MATTERSON (Student, University of Houston): I don't understand as far as the media and how they can just run with this whole he's speaking about generalizations, hope, and he's not specific and da-da-da-da. That is totally not true. I don't understand what about providing $4,000 as far as on tuition credits to students who do community work - what is not specific about talking to your enemies overseas and everyone else? Those - that's very specific.

WERTHEIMER: Just about ten miles away we found a very different atmosphere among members of the young singles and young marrieds bible study groups at Houston's huge Second Baptist Church. We met in the church's restaurant around the corner from the large and well-equipped fitness center and the yoga class.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Yoga instructor): Bring your shoulders towards your ears and just tighten the shoulders. Tight, tight, tight, tight, tight. And relax.

WERTHEIMER: Only two of these young people are sure about their choice next Tuesday. Kristin Somers Holmgren will vote for John McCain, but only because Mike Huckabee can't win. Here's Somers Holmgren.

Ms. KRISTIN SOMERS HOLMGREN (McCain supporter): Obviously Huckabee was charismatic in the beginning and being a Christian, as well, more outspoken in his religious views, caught my attention. However, McCain has definitely come out as the front runner. So with that I've been a little bit more in line with him.

WERTHEIMER: It didn't get much better for McCain with this conservative mostly Republican group. Angie Gilligan is a software sales rep. she's undecided but has eliminated Clinton.

Ms. ANGIE GILLIGAN (Software sales representative): As a woman, I'm impressed that she's taken this on, but also as a woman I have great respect for men and for their leadership and the submission of women to men - which would come from my foundational beliefs of growing up in the church, in a Christian home, and that I think a man should lead our country.

WERTHEIMER: The single's pastor also joined the group. John Card said he is willing to vote for a candidate he doesn't think can win.

Mr. JOHN CARD (Singles pastor, Second Baptist Church): Also, I agree there should be a male leading our country. My thoughts on McCain, I think he's a stud. I think he's a war hero. I probably line up more with his foreign policy. I do think also he's probably more central as opposed to right. So my protest vote, even though I personally think Huckabee's probably mathematically out of it, I'd still vote for Huckabee.

WERTHEIMER: Their choices are neither as conservative nor as Christian as these twenty and thirty-something's would like, but they say they'll vote if only to send a message that in four years they want better choices. While across town, some of their counterparts think the choices are better than ever before. Two very different views of what's happening in Texas on Tuesday.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Houston.

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What's at Stake in the March 4 Primaries?

To view a photo gallery of the presidential candidates leading up to the March 4 primaries. hide caption

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Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images hide caption

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Hillary Clinton

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio.

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Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas. Dave Einsel/Getty Images hide caption

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Barack Obama

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas.

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Read a State-by-State Analysis of March 4 Primaries:

John McCain i i

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images hide caption

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John McCain

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

The Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont on March 4 are seen as make-or-break for the presidential campaign of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton needs to triumph in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio to halt the momentum of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has won 11 consecutive nominating contests since Super Tuesday (including the Virgin Islands and the Democrats Abroad Global Primary). Even her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said that Texas and Ohio are must-win states if she is going to have a chance at taking the nomination.

For Obama, a successful March 4 could help nudge him toward the nomination and solidify the growing perception that he is the party's front-runner. He will still have to court the roughly 800 Democratic superdelegates, who act as free agents and who can vote for either candidate, regardless of their state's popular vote. (Both Obama and Clinton have been wooing the superdelegates relentlessly.)

The two candidates have been campaigning heavily in Texas (193 delegates) and Ohio (141), focusing especially on those states' respective Hispanic and working-class voters through rallies and advertisements.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain has swept recent primaries in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin, and now delivers speeches with the confidence of a man who is certain to be his party's nominee.

But a recent New York Times article proved to be a major distraction. The article outlined McCain's allegedly close relationship with a female lobbyist, with hints of a friendship that went beyond the professional. (Some commentators make the argument that for someone who stakes his reputation on his honesty and "straight talk," the article has the potential to prove damaging. Others say the story could ultimately help McCain with more conservative Republicans by making the argument that it was an effort by the liberal media to hurt the Arizona senator's prospects.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee remains a candidate, though since Super Tuesday, when he did well in the South, he has won in just two states, Louisiana and Kansas. (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who has not won anywhere, is staying in the race as well, though he faces a challenge back home for his House seat in the March 4 primary.) Huckabee has said he will continue as a candidate until he or McCain has the 1,191 delegates needed to officially capture the nomination.

The Candidates

The Democrats: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

The Republicans: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul

TEXAS

The Democrats: Clinton is hoping that her strong ties to Texas will give her a boost. She worked in the Rio Grande Valley 35 years ago, registering voters — a fact she often mentions on local campaign stops. Texans also did well under the Bill Clinton White House, earning posts in the Treasury, Energy and Interior departments, along with two ambassadorships.

But Obama is on a roll. The night of Feb. 19, when he was declaring victory in the Wisconsin primary, he did so from Houston — signifying the importance he places on the state. Texas has an odd dual primary/caucus system, and Obama has done very well in states that hold caucuses; in fact, with the exception of Nevada, he has swept every caucus state.

New Texas polls show the two candidates locked in a dead heat.

Texas Democrats must vote in their senatorial districts by ballot, and then also attend a caucus immediately after the polls close. One hundred and twenty-six delegates will be awarded based on the primary, while 42 Democratic delegates will come from the caucus.

The Republicans: Arizona Sen. John McCain has been popular with Hispanics since he co-authored the ultimately unsuccessful immigration bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Huckabee, whose record also shows a more moderate viewpoint on immigration than some others in the party would prefer, has been campaigning in Houston and San Antonio.

Hispanics are the key demographic to court in Texas and could make up as much as 40 percent of the total electorate. The candidates have been running Spanish-language ads; the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin was co-sponsored by the Spanish television network Univision.

Another key demographic: African-American voters, expected to be 25 percent of the primary electorate.


OHIO

Ohio's sluggish economy is the key issue in the upcoming primary; unemployment in the Buckeye State is greater than in any state in the region other than Michigan. Candidates of both parties have talked about their plans to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio's manufacturing jobs have left the area. The state has also been hit hard by high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.

The Democrats: A recent poll seems to suggest that Obama's support in the Buckeye State is increasing, though Clinton appears to be holding a lead, however tenuous. Two Ohio labor unions, with a combined membership of about a 100,000, switched their backing from former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Obama. The Illinois senator also has received the national backing of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents more than 1 million truck drivers and warehouse workers. Obama's plans for affordable health care, as well as tax credits for low- and middle-income workers and seniors, could appeal to the state's working class.

Clinton has also campaigned in Ohio, most recently in Youngstown and Columbus. She is hoping to appeal to women and working-class voters, who have made up her base in past primaries. Her health care plan calls for universal coverage, and she has proposed a $70 billion economic stimulus plan that includes a moratorium on foreclosures and an assistance fund for at-risk borrowers. Clinton has started running ads that appeal to blue-collar workers. Her latest Ohio ad begins with the phrase: "You pour coffee, fix hair. You work the night shift at the local hospital. You're often overworked, underpaid, and sometimes overlooked...She understands."

Ohio is not used to playing a decisive role in the nominating process. The last time that happened was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter's victory in the June primary state effectively awarded him the Democratic presidential nomination.


RHODE ISLAND

The Democrats: The Clinton name holds much weight in Rhode Island, a state that Hillary Clinton often visited with her husband when he was president. She also has helped fundraise for several state politicians who double as superdelegates, including U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Providence Mayor David Cicciline.

But as Obama keeps building momentum in his campaign, the question becomes: Will he make inroads into Clinton's base? Michelle Obama spent an afternoon campaigning in Rhode Island, where her brother is a basketball coach at Brown University. Providence is a college town, and its university-age voters are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.

The Republicans: McCain visited Rhode Island in mid-February to try to appeal to New England's more moderate Republicans. He won Rhode Island's 2000 presidential primary with 60 percent of the vote.


VERMONT

The candidates have not made Vermont a major priority in this March 4 contest: It offers just 15 Democratic delegates and 19 GOP delegates.

The Democrats: None of the candidates have campaigned in the state so far. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Vermont Democrats have far surpassed the state's Republicans in fundraising for this election cycle, with $1.4 million going to Democratic candidates and $322,000 to Republicans.

University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson predicts that Obama will do well in the state, since Vermont has a history of supporting maverick candidates, such as Howard Dean in 2000. (Vermont also has a senator who is an independent.)

The Republicans: McCain recently made a quick campaign stop. Huckabee is not expected to do well and is not targeting the state.

Vermont has an open primary, meaning residents can cross party lines to vote for the candidate of their choice.

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