Texas bully-girl tactics hand the first round to Clinton's wimp: Patrick Cockburn in Houston on a woman whose clout could swing a Senate race

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The Independent Online
KAY Bailey Hutchison, who has an even chance of winning the Senate race in Texas for the Republicans, stands by her lie-detector test. She says it proves she is telling the truth when she denies battering a former aide, Sharon Ammann, with a notebook.

Ammann says it happened when she was working for Hutchison, the State Treasurer, and had failed to find the telephone number of a Hutchison campaign contributor. 'Kay just became irate and she pounded on the desk and she was screaming and shaking her finger,' she says. 'Then she came over with this kind of a notebook and just hit me repeatedly, with every word she spoke, on my left arm.'

As daughter of the former Texas governor John Connally, Ammann was in a position to have her allegations heard. Her father arranged for her to take her own lie-detector test, which she passed. She appeared on television to demonstrate Hutchison's attack, looking, an observer in Houston said, 'like she was swatting invisible killer bees'.

Four other former Hutchison staffers also complained of being manhandled by her, emphasising in particular the strength of her pinch. 'She was famous for what was called 'the death grip',' said one. Hutchison herself insists it is all a conspiracy by rival Republicans. 'I never hit anybody in my whole life.'

The allegations have damaged but not crippled Hutchison's campaign to defeat the Democrats in a Senate race that is the first serious electoral test for Bill Clinton since he arrived in the White House. Voting began yesterday.

The centre of opposition to Clinton's policies are the 43 Senate Republicans, and he does not want their numbers reinforced. It was their filibuster that defeated his economic stimulus package last month, and a victory in Texas would lift Republican morale.

The election was always going to be hard-fought. It follows Clinton's appointment as Treasury Secretary of Senator Lloyd Bentsen, previously the most powerful Democrat in the state.

From the beginning, everything went wrong for the Democrats. Ann Richards, the popular Democratic Governor, had rapidly to find a replacement for Bentsen, who was willing to fight an immediate election. All now say she made a poor job of it when she appointed Bob Kreuger, a former professor of English and a conservative Democrat. Senator Kreuger has the reputation of a man so keen to keep in with all sides that, when he stood for election in the 1980s, his opponent carried around a model rubber spine to demonstrate Kreuger's lack of backbone. Even so, Kreuger might this morning have been looking forward to six years in the Senate if the election held yesterday had been run on a first past the post basis. All the polls show him picking up the most votes, but in Texas you need 51 per cent of votes cast and he will fall well short. As a result, he faces a run-off election on 5 June, when his opponent is likely to be Kay Hutchison; without Sharon Amman's revelations, she would probably be favourite. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that after their defeat in the presidential election, the Republicans in the 1990s will be like the Democrats in the 1970s: too busy fighting among themselves to take on anybody else. So far, Hutchison's efforts to accommodate all factions look unpromising: last week she was denounced on the same day by pro- and anti-abortion groups, each accusing her of betrayal.

Kreuger, for his part, wants to avoid being cornered on where he stands in relation to Clinton, whose economic programme is not popular in Texas. In the Senate, Kreuger voted against large parts of it, and he has evidently received the nod from the White House that his dissent will be tolerated if it helps him win election. The President has gone so far as to make a video in which he declares his trust in Kreuger, although this is being shown only to the party faithful. Even so, black politicians in Houston say they do not see why they should mobilise their voters to support a Democrat who votes with Republicans.

All this equivocation is going down badly with voters; in another year, one of the other 22 candidates might have made a breakthrough. That they have not is largely thanks to David Koresh and the siege at Waco. For two months, the story dominated Texas news. 'It was the biggest thing to happen in Texas since Kennedy was shot,' said a local radio journalist. Texans watched what was happening in Waco to the exclusion of television advertising and electioneering.

There is one other curious aspect to the election. Apart from David Koresh, the Texas personality repeatedly spotted on television in recent weeks is Ross Perot. His poll ratings are higher than ever, and one of his former advisers, Richard Fisher, is standing. A win is thought unlikely, however.

(Photograph omitted)