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The Tory Texan and the Indiana Kid Bentsen

6 minute read
Richard Stengel with Bentsen

Flanked by a posse of lawmen, some sporting ten-gallon hats, Lloyd Bentsen cheerfully introduced his running mate. The Law Enforcement Officers Association of Texas had gathered at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas last week to endorse the Governor of Massachusetts and certify that he is not a patsy on crime. Bentsen, silver-haired and presidential, surveyed the audience with his mild and benign gaze and then said casually, “Mike, have you rented a hotel room here tonight?” Dukakis appeared slightly mystified but nodded his head. “Good. In some people’s minds that makes you a Texan.”

Bentsen’s jab at George Bush for calling a rented Houston hotel suite his home got an appreciative laugh. But it will take more than a clever line for Bentsen to make Texans think Dukakis is one of them. As his running mate, Bentsen has one overriding responsibility: to put the Lone Star State’s 29 electoral votes in the Democratic column in November. No Democrat has won the White House in this century without Texas.

The battle for Texas’ soul is a microcosm of Dukakis’ national problem: luring Reagan Democrats back to the fold. Bentsen has been spending more time in Texas than in any other state trying to do just that. So how does a courtly and conservative Senator get his fellow Texans to vote for a Greek Yankee from the most liberal state in the union? “Basically, what Bentsen does,” says his press spokesman, Mike McCurry, “is credentialize Dukakis in Texas.”

The strategy is twofold: first, play up the depressed Texas economy and have good old Lloyd persuade Texans that the Massachusetts Governor is no pointy- headed, dovish liberal but a man they can do business with. The idea is that it’s not who loves America more but who will run America better. Second, debunkport Bush as a Texan and show him for the gee-whiz New England prepster that he really is.

It isn’t easy. When he is in Texas, Dukakis seems like the man who fell to earth: alien and uncomfortable. The Republicans have been effectively tarring the Governor with the liberal label and pressing all the local “hot buttons” — gun control, the A.C.L.U., the Pledge of Allegiance, capital punishment. The latest polls show Dukakis falling 10 points behind.

At a speech in Longview, an east Texas oil town, Bentsen stands in front of a 60-ft. American flag and a silent, black oil rig. “Let’s get down to us folks,” he tells the crowd of about 100, old and young, black and white. “Five out of six prigs that were active in 1981 are now inactive.” Yes . . . Yes! some exclaim. “The Reagan-Bush Administration’s energy policy has been as empty as Dan Quayle’s resume.” A few yee-his ring out. But when Bentsen segues to Dukakis and the Massachusetts Miracle, the crowd becomes silent. After the speech, an old woman in a faded sundress who works for the county’s Democratic Party sounds downright gloomy. “It used to be all Democratic here,” she says. “Now there are a lot of folks who would like to see Bentsen running for Vice President with Bush.”

% Bentsen is a species as indigenous to Texas as the longhorn: a Tory Democrat. For once, the most oft-used adjective about a candidate is the most accurate: patrician. Courteous and deferential, he wears his down-home credentials as discreetly as the LMB monograms that dot the breast pockets of his fine cotton shirts. As a campaigner, he is like a good tire: durable, road-tested, puncture-proof. But no one would ever describe him as electrifying: he often seems to be moving and speaking in slow motion. Unlike many men in public life, he looks his age, a weathered 67. His sense of humor is as dry as a prairie breeze. In the operating room of a hospital in the one- stoplight town of Hale Center, he listens to a doctor describe the type of anesthesia used there. “Most of this crowd,” he says, casting a grave look at the press corps, “thinks I’m asleep already.”

Sometimes the Bentsen campaign seems to be a languid odyssey in futile pursuit of network airtime. By design, the Dukakis headquarters has kept him from committing any news, though he has stepped up his attacks on Quayle. “If the Republicans were elected,” said Bentsen last week, “I would pray for the good health of George Bush every night.” Bentsen’s advisers trust that he will show similar vigor in this week’s debate.

One reason Bentsen’s campaign seems like a local election effort is that it is. Under Texas law, Bentsen can run for both the vice presidency and the Senate. He spends nearly a third of each day giving local interviews and another third raising money. Bentsen will rope in $8 million for his Senate race against a virtual unknown. That money can be used for precinct-level registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, which are what win in Texas. Democrats are telling voters to pull the lever twice for Bentsen on Nov. 8. But the Republicans have a subtler strategy. Get two Texans for the price of one, they whisper. Keep Bentsen as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and put Bush in the White House. This makes sense to a lot of Texans, and the Bentsen campaign has yet to come up with an effective rebuttal. When a local reporter asks Bentsen whether Texans wouldn’t be better off with one of their own in the Senate and in the White House, he gruffly replies, “That’s a diversionary tactic.”

Week by week, Bentsen is growing stronger as a campaigner; he is looser now and more comfortable with a TelePrompTer. He is beginning to campaign like a man who can’t lose — and he can’t. Yet the Republicans continue to make ! headway. Bentsen says he was “bloody outraged” by what Bush did with the Pledge of Allegiance and felt that Dukakis should have come out punching. Many operatives think the Democrats still need to take the gloves off in Texas. “These guys,” says a county chairman, “have to be a whole lot tougher in rebutting this bull.” But Bentsen, for the moment, remains as genteel as a second-generation landowner and as formal as a senatorial gray eminence. He knows that when you have a tough sell, the best thing is to keep calm and make it look easy.


CREDIT: TIME Poll taken by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman

CAPTION: Who is more qualified to be President?

DESCRIPTION: Voters’ opinion on whether Lloyd Bentsen or Dan Quayle is more qualified to be President.

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