Dole endures ten-gallon ritual for battle he has to win

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Austin - "The practical problem is if we don't carry Texas, the election is lost," said Tom Pauken, state Republican chairman. That is why on Thursday the world will see Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for President, in a ten-gallon cowboy hat fulfilling the ridiculous yet ritual photo opportunity for national candidates visiting Texas.

How many votes this is likely to win is anyone's guess. But Texas is the biggest state Mr Dole has a chance of winning, and his first campaign visit since his nomination could influence the state's 30 Congressional races, many of which are tight enough that the majority in the House of Representatives could rest in the balance.

As Mr Dole's commanding 54-40 lead in the Texas polls dwindled to a dead- heat, Governor George W Bush, son of the former president, lobbied hard for Mr Dole to make a personal appearance. "I think Senator Dole understands you can't take Texas votes for granted," said George W, who would be embarrassed if his state's 32 electoral votes (New York has 33 and California 54) go to Bill Clinton.

Not since Jimmy Carter won in 1976 has Texas voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. In 1992, Texans gave former President Bush 41 per cent, Mr Clinton 37 per cent and native son Ross Perot 22 per cent. This year, Mr Perot, whose poll figures remain in single digits, is again expected to draw votes away from the Republican nominee, not Mr Clinton.

The number of registered voters is a record high this year. The National Voter Registration Act began in 1995 and has allowed voters to register at driver's licence locations and other state offices. That, and a nationally organised voter drive by Latinos, has resulted in a 19 per cent jump since 1992 in Texas's registered voters.

Another record this year is the amount of money available to candidates. Nationally, these legal bribes are in the news as the Democrats defend a $425,000 (pounds 280,000) donation from an Indonesian couple and Mr Dole defends $200,000 given him over the years by Archer-Daniels-Midland, a company just fined $100m for price-fixing.

These dollars come left and right from individuals, political action committees, national political parties and the federal government. Dollars from the left are visible in two tight Texas congressional races which the national AFL-CIO - America's equivalent of the TUC - has targeted as part of a $35m campaign to help the Democrats regain control of Congress.

Republican Ron Paul, whose district lies between Houston and Austin, has made his own television advertisements to counter the "half-million dollar campaign by big labour to elect their fellow liberal, Lefty Morris". And Congressman Steve Stockman, a Republican from near Houston who is targeted by organised labour, has asked the courts to intervene.

In the last fortnight, Mr Stockman has been hit by $300,000 in negative television advertisements paid for by the AFL-CIO, which Mr Stockman says misrepresent his voting record. A US district judge turned down Mr Stockman's request for a restraining order, saying the matter should be considered by the Federal Election Commission, which probably will not do so until after the 5 November election.

Dollars from the right are visible in other Congressional races. Ralph Reed, director of the national Christian Coalition, says his conservative evangelical group, which was influential in creating the 1994 Republican majority in Congress, is targeting the country's 30 Congressional seats left open by Democrats. Nineteen are in the South, one of the regions where his membership of 1.7 million is strongest. Six of those open seats are in Texas.

Lest we all begin to take politics too seriously, comic relief arrived in the form of a Texas politician making a fool of himself. Copies of a television documentary, to be shown nationwide in late October, became public in which Rodney Ellis, a state senator, was seen kissing hands and slapping backs on the Senate floor to get votes. Trouble was, Mr Ellis was wired for sound, a fact which he had failed to mention to other senators, who felt betrayed when what they thought were private remarks became public.

"I've gotten a well-deserved public whipping," said Mr Ellis, after apologising. "You try to learn from your mistakes, and this one was a doozy."