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Viva Victor

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Schoolteacher Victor Morales captured the attention of the media and the Texas political establishment with his upset primary win.

On most September weekends, Victor Morales, private citizen, grades papers from his civics students at Poteet High School near Dallas. But now that he's candidate Morales--and one of the most compelling underdog political hopefuls in this fall's campaign season--his students will have to wait.

Morales is the modern-day David who left his teaching job a year ago to campaign full-time for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican stalwart Phil Gramm. In the beginning, the grandson of Mexican immigrants canvassed the state in a white Nissan pickup truck, logging more than 60,000 miles while spreading word of his bid to anyone who would listen. He operated mostly alone, used $8,000 in family savings as a budget, and promised to study issues rather than offer detailed solutions.

When Morales officially launched his campaign last fall in front of his school in Mesquite, the handful of people attending the rally weren't sure if he was gutsy, cocky, or just a little crazy. "When he first brought it up, it didn't surprise me a whole lot. You could tell he liked getting out, going door-to-door, and finding out people's feelings," says Lanny Frasier, Morales' former principal. "I guess I was surprised by the magnitude of the initial race he decided to be involved in. I asked, 'Victor, have you ever thought of running for the statehouse?'" Morales remembers the day with a chuckle, saying he had a gut feeling that he'd see better days. And he did.

Morales stunned the Texas Democratic establishment by finishing first in the 12-candidate March primary race that included two U.S. congressmen. Then, in April, the teacher whose students dared him to enter politics beat Rep. John Bryant of Dallas by two percentage points in a runoff.

"Texas is a huge state with several expensive media markets that usually takes millions of dollars to cover," says Jon R. Bond, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University in College Station. "Morales did none of that. He drove around the state in his little white pickup."

The improbable, unorthodox win set up the November showdown with Gramm, who is making a strong comeback here after his failed presidential bid this summer. The win also made the 47-year-old former dance instructor a media darling on both the local and national fronts. He was even invited to give a three-minute speech at the Democratic National Convention in August.

"From the very beginning, the experts said no way. The man doesn't have the money. The man hasn't been to Washington," Morales tells a group of students recently. "But the people have decided it could happen, and here I am."

The election is closing in. And Morales--the first minority U.S. Senate candidate from a major party in Texas history--is running out of time. So at 10 a.m. on a Saturday in September, Morales finds himself nearly 200 miles from the southeast Dallas suburb of Crandall, where he lives with his wife and two children. He's here to start another day on the campaign trail, this time as the grand marshal of a parade kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month. Several thousand spectators are expected.

Predicting a Morales win is like saying Bambi could beat Godzilla at arm wrestling.

Morales exudes charm and confidence. He stands in the back of his signature pickup, his lean 5-foot-7-inch frame ram-rod straight. He's wearing a crisp white shirt and dark patterned tie and takes care to wave slowly to the people lining both sides of the street. Parade watchers immediately recognize his camera-ready smile and handsome face as they shout "Victor" and "Hey, Senator."

Morales needs the free exposure the parade gives him. He's 16 points behind in some polls, has yet to settle on a debate date with Gramm, and his campaign budget is so tight that he rations bumper stickers at the parade.

"Does he have a chance of winning? Hell yes, he does," says Ester Alaniz, a retired secretary and lifelong Houston resident who secured her spot on the crowded street 30 minutes before the procession began. Alaniz is impressed that Morales rejects direct donations from political action committees. She says he represents the average person. "He doesn't owe anybody nothing. He's going to do what he's going to do."

But predicting a Morales win is like saying Bambi could beat Godzilla at arm wrestling.

Although Gramm was forced to end his 1996 GOP presidential bid because of poor showings in early primaries, he is an effective fund-raiser who remains popular in Texas. He has served in the Senate since 1985. Before that, he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1979 before switching parties in 1983 and serving there two more years.

"Gramm didn't do well nationally, but he's well-liked here," says Michael Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. "He has tremendous name recognition, and running for president helped. If I were a Democratic strategist in Washington, this is not a race I would emphasize." Moore is referring to the three seats Democrats need to recapture a majority in the Senate; 34 Senate seats will be contested in November.

Gramm, a former economics professor at Texas A&M, paints Morales as a traditional, big-spending liberal who would be soft on crime and out of touch with Texas' traditional conservatism. It's hard to make the labels stick, however, because Morales' only political office has been a two-year stint on the Crandall City Council. But Gramm's television spots also try to strip Morales of the populist image that has been so important to his success. (Morales can't afford TV ads.) To Gramm, Morales, who has tremendous appeal with Hispanics here, must seem like a nuisance that has to be endured until November.

Perhaps more to the point, some say Morales has taken on a heroic but hopeless quest of quixotic proportions that will leave him grading exams next fall rather than passing laws.

But Morales shows no signs of relenting. Even though it takes less than an hour to complete the parade route, he mingles with well-wishers and poses for pictures until well past lunch time. Then it's off to Sam Houston Park a few blocks away where local Hispanic organizers are hosting a post-parade picnic. Lively Latin music plays in the background as Morales meets and greets dozens of would-be voters into the late afternoon. Chances are he won't take time to sit down or eat.

Election experts say Morales will attract new Hispanic voters. Some estimates predict that Hispanic turnout could reach 1 million for the first time in Texas history.

Almost always within a few yards of Morales is his right-hand man and driver, Minh Huynh, a former Poteet High student who took a break from college to help with the campaign. The two spend countless hours on the road together, often arriving late to events, either because Huynh loses his way or because Morales can't stop chatting with friendly crowds.

Tonight will be an exception. At 5:30 p.m., the little white truck pulls into the dirt parking lot of the Walker County Fairgrounds in Huntsville, 60 miles north of Houston. They're 30 minutes early for a Democratic rally, which features Morales as the keynote speaker. Democratic leaders say they sold 1,100 tickets to the event at $10 each, despite the political inroads that Christian conservatives have made in this small town of about 5,000 households.

By 6, most of the crowd is set to dish up plates of steaming barbecue beef and cornbread. But not Morales. He stands ready to talk with anyone who comes his way. He's so intent on his conversations that he hardly notices the homespun entertainment. Four young girls in patriotic outfits dance to "Yankee Doodle," and a group of local women dressed as singing nuns swing their hips to "La Macarena," a popular line-dance.

When Morales finally takes the podium at around 8:30--12 hours into an already demanding day--the rally is a full hour behind schedule. He speaks without notes, rolling through rhythmic peaks and valleys like a minister, even quoting from the Bible at one point.

"One thing I'm afraid to do is make promises I may or may not be able to keep. I think people are tired of that," he says. "The difference is that Victor Morales will not be worrying about re-election. When he makes a judgment call, it will be based on the information. I will make my own call because I don't dance for anyone."

Supporters here swear that low poll numbers don't gauge the enthusiasm that the schoolteacher generates at the grassroots.

"I believe in him. What you see is what you get," says Charley Sandera, a retired parole officer who has never actively supported a candidate before Morales. "This guy is for real."


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