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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 21:45 GMT
Is race an issue in Texas battle?
Cheerleaders, one white and one black, march in a Texas parade
Changing demographics are remaking Texas politics

A complex election battle is developing in President George Bush's home state of Texas, a conservative stronghold.

Ron Kirk, an African-American Democrat, is running for the Senate seat vacated by a retiring Republican. Mr Kirk's opponent, John Cornyn, is white.

The polls show Mr Kirk is in with a chance, and if elected he will make history as the first black senator from Texas.

The Democrat built a strong and diverse support base during his tenure as Dallas mayor. Then he established a reputation as a man-of-the-people politician.

'Dream Team'

But Ron Kirk's success on election day will be dependent on a high turnout of black and Hispanic voters, who traditionally back Democrats but have historically voted in lower numbers than Republicans.
Senate candidate Ron Kirk
Kirk says his skills - not his race - will decide the election

His bid has been helped by favourable demographic changes and the Democrat's Hispanic nominee for governor, Tony Sanchez.

The candidacies of Mr Kirk, Mr Sanchez and a white candidate, John Sharp who is running for lieutenant-governor, led some party members to describe the Democrat ticket as the "dream team" - emphasising its diversity.

This prompted accusations that race was being exploited in campaigning.

But Mr Kirk told the BBC his reputation would get him into the Senate, not his African-American heritage.

"Being a child of the South, born into segregation, I absolutely understand what an emotional, powerful statement it would be for me to occupy this US Senate seat.

"But if people don't believe I have the substantive skills to do the job, they're not going to vote for me solely out of a sense of emotion or optics, and I wouldn't want them to," he said.

This view was supported by a voter in Palestine, a farming town in east Texas. Mr Kirk was campaigning there recently during the town's Hot Pepper Festival, an annual celebration of local culture.

Kevin Kelly, a 47-year-old worker with the Union Pacific Railroad said he would be putting a cross next to Ron Kirk's name on election day. He said he was not conscious of any racial undertone in the election.
Railroad worker Kevin Kelly
Voter Kevin Kelly: Race is an issue, but not for him

"I'm sure it does enter into it, but it doesn't influence me," he said.

But Stephanie Creasham, one of Mr Kirk's ardent supporters in Dallas, gave BBC News Online a different opinion. She said race was inevitably playing a part.

"I think there is kind of an atmosphere of political correctness in that you don't want to emphasise it, but it's there in black and white. You can see it, you can see the difference in the person, in the man, and in the colour," she said.

Republicans criticised

The opposition Republicans have not escaped criticism when it comes to race. Wayne Slater, a political writer for the Dallas Morning News, accuses them of playing on ethnicity too.

"There is a more subtle message being sent by Republicans, who are attempting to appeal to the majority of whites, and that is to remind them that Kirk is black."
Republican Senate candidate John Cornyn
John Cornyn is worried about Kirk's pro-business appeal to moderates

For his part, Republican candidate John Cornyn has appeared worried about the Democrat's bid for the Senate.

The Texas seat has been held by Republicans for more than 40 years, but President Bush has twice been called to the state to rally core supporters.

The danger for Republicans comes from Ron Kirk's appeal to moderates who valued his pro-business approach as Dallas mayor.

This means Mr Cornyn cannot be complacent about support from conservatives.

But on the stump in Tyler, East Texas, Mr Cornyn told the BBC that race did not feature in his election strategy.

"As much as people, perhaps from other places, would like to make this a racially charged campaign, it really is not. I can't change who I am. Mr Kirk can't change who he is, neither of us would want to. But what we're doing is talking about issues that are important to the voters," Mr Cornyn said.

Issues matter

One of Mr Cornyn's supporters in Tyler, Tim Ellison, says Texans will make choices on the issues, not on matters of race.

"There's more to it than just black and white. It's what each candidate stands for, not so much their colour. I mean Texans are too smart for that nowadays. I don't think it's a race issue unless you want to make it a race issue," he said.

In Oakcliff, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood in Dallas, Vanessa Affott agrees.
Vanessa Affott of an African-American neighbourhood in Dallas
Voter Vanessa Affott: Mr Kirk will do what is right for all races

She says she's concerned about the fact that there are currently no blacks in the US Senate. But she told BBC News Online that Ron Kirk would get her vote because of what he stood for, not the colour of his skin.

"I think he's for all race, all colours, all race. So I believe he would do for the black, as well as Mexican-American, as well as white. He'll do what's right," she said.

There is clearly no easy answer to the question whether race is being exploited by politicians campaigning in Texas.

As one newspaper put it: 'Race is everywhere and nowhere'.

But with Democrats and Republicans now divided by only one seat in the Senate, some may be willing to use any tactics in the desperate fight for votes.

Key races




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