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Viva Victor

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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 Wash-

ington," 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.

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.

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."

Morales may have picked up a few votes tonight, but he didn't make much money. Sitting in a remote corner of the expansive pavilion, Huynh sells about 20 Morales T-shirts for $15 each. When a would-be buyer scoffs at the price, he explains, "They're $15 because they cost $8 apiece. They're 100 percent cotton."

Morales makes a point of telling people that he's not about big money. Ninety percent of his funds come from individual donations of $100 or less--70 percent from checks for $30 or less.

"It's about las ganas (the desire), el corazon (the heart), and la gente (the people)," he is fond of saying.

But money helps, and Morales admits that he is waiting for national Democratic officials to pump more money into his campaign. According to the latest Federal Election Commission data, the Morales campaign had $122,000. That was chump change compared to the incumbent's $3 million war chest.

What does that mean? For starters, Morales was driving around in his truck this weekend asking for donations in a plastic gas can. Gramm was making a three-day campaign swing through east Texas in a chartered bus to kick off a new series of expensive anti-crime television ads.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committeein Washington is allowed by law to give Morales nearly $2 million. So far, the national organization has contributed money to pay for a Morales fund-raiser, but it's nowhere near the maximum allowed. Stephanie Cohen, the committee's press secretary, praises the message and honesty of Morales' campaign. But to get more money, she says, he'll have to pull within 10 percentage points of Gramm.

Julie Hillrichs, a spokeswoman for the Gramm campaign, thinks it's disingenuous of Morales to say he refuses money from political action committees even though he has taken party funds that come from special-interest groups.

Officials with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 26,000 members, would like to help Morales financially but respect his financing position. In lieu of money, the union endorses Morales in its newsletters, which also blast Gramm for supporting federal cuts in education spending.

Members of the state affiliate--which Morales belongs to--have also rallied as grassroots supporters. "If you could get clear enough in the public eye the image of Victor Morales in the classroom for 18 years and Phil Gramm in the back halls of Congress for 18 years," says Eric Hartman, the legislative director for the Texas AFT chapter, "Morales would be over the top."

By 10 p.m., Morales and Huynh are heading back to Dallas. With any luck, they'll be home around midnight. These days, 14-plus hours of nonstop campaigning is pretty typical for the candidate and his right-hand man. But one of them, probably Morales, will sleep in the cramped cab of the truck on the way home.

Back in Huntsville, several local members of the 1,800-strong Texas Motorcycle Rights Association head from the rally to the Bullwinkle restaurant and lounge. As singer Sideways Sumlin drowns the mellow crowd in blues, the conversation drifts to politics and why they support Morales--even though he's vague on many issues.

This November, 39-year-old Gail Hall, a seamstress, says she'll vote for the first time in her life. "It's because of him. I really like this guy," she says of Morales. "He's just a regular guy. He's just like us."

The average-man image of the $36,000-a-year teacher may be all it takes to woo many Morales backers. After all, his main campaign platform doesn't promise many specifics. He opposes term limits for Congress, saying the voters can kick anyone out who's not doing a good job. He wants to protect bilingual-education programs and Pell Grants. He supports affirmative action, but without quotas. He favors balancing the federal budget but would not amend the U.S. Constitution to do so. (Gramm, who has been a leading budget hawk in the Senate, wants the amendment.) And though he promises that the U.S. Department of Education would not be a sacred cow, he does think government can and should play a role in public schools. (His opponent wants to eliminate the Education Department, advocating education as a strictly local issue, not a federal responsibility.)

Morales is often short on answers as well. The candidate, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, says he's not sure how to proceed on many international issues. He freely admits that he doesn't have ready-made solutions to curbing the costs of the federal Medicare and Medicaid health programs. And he has mixed feelings about welfare reform, in part, because his own family drew public assistance when he was growing up.

But Gail and her husband, Jeff, say they've heard plenty of unfulfilled promises from politicians over the years. They look for Morales to be different. "Victor Morales started the same way we did," says Jeff Hall, an environmental scientist in Huntsville who worked on a grassroots level for his motorcycle-rights group. "He goes out and asks people what they need. Let me put it this way: Phil Gramm is a politician. Victor Morales is a real human being."

Sunday is Morales' family day. Interviews with the media are off-limits. Campaigning comes to a halt. It's time for some much-needed R & R.

"He gets really tired," says Melinda Poss, a local architect who took time off from her work and volunteered to be the campaign's full-time scheduler. "I have to schedule rest time. If I don't, he'll drag, and we have to make up for it over a couple of days."

Morales and his wife, Dani, married in 1985 after a three-and-half-year courtship. Both are avid dancers who taught and performed professionally, though it's hard lately to find time for their passion. Their daughter, Julia, is 11, and son, Jordan, is 9. (Morales also has a 21-year-old son from a previous marriage.)

Morales has been advised that Dani's appearances with him would bolster his family-man image, but that's easier said than done. She works full-time as a hospital administrator and is even busier with the children now that her husband is on the road so much.

But Dani has also been the subject of the campaign's only scandal. It revolves around her 1978 college loan that was outstanding until recently because of a long-running dispute with the federal government over repayment terms.

And though Morales says the campaign is simply something he has to do, Dani has already expressed reservations about moving to Washington if her husband manages to pull off the upset win. "If I can't get them to move," he says, "there will be a lot of flights between Texas and Washington."

Sunday slips by too fast. Late that evening, Morales' staff shows up to sketch out the details of the week ahead. On Monday, he'll start a marathon seven-day campaign trip that will take him to south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, a part of the state where he enjoys popularity among the large Hispanic population.

Hispanic turnout in November could reach 1 million for the first time in state history, according to someestimates. That would be a 50 percent increase over the 666,795 who voted in 1992. Though election experts here say Morales is sure to attract new Hispanic voters, they don't know how much that will increase his chances of beating Gramm. Hispanic voters are expected to make up only about 15 percent of all registered Texas voters this fall.

Morales, who shifts comfortably between English and Spanish, makes a point of saying that he's not just running as a Hispanic. "Anybody who knows me knows this campaign is not about race," he says at a campaign speech. "It's about representing you--the ordinary, everyday, hard-working, tax-paying citizen who makes this country run."

Morales has a full day planned on Monday before he can leave on his southern campaign swing. At 9 a.m., he's due at Adamson High, a mostly Hispanic inner-city school in Dallas where students are celebrating Mexico's Independence Day. Principal Martin Riojas, who is clearly pleased to have Morales here as a role model for his students, says fewer than half the 400 or so 9th graders who enter each year end up graduating from his school.

Morales, who wanted to be a teacher even as a child and then worked as a library aide to help pay for college, doesn't let him down. "Thanks to education, I'm able to accomplish what people said I could not," Morales tells the students. "I'm able to ar-ti-cu-late. I'm able to a-dapt. So, instead of giving up, instead of blaming the man, blaming someone else, I said, 'How can I get through this problem? How can I get information?' That's what education is."

The auditorium erupts in applause when a senior asks Morales if he will eliminate the state's graduation exit exam. He explains that the test is a state issue and not one that he could take on as a U.S. senator. Instead, he urges the students to make the change themselves by getting organized and voting when they turn 18.

Morales makes time after his speech to talk withreporters, even though none of them is from a major local media outlet. Flashing a smile, he explains that he wasn't serious when he suggested to the students that he would run for president after a term as senator. Morales says it's just another example of how he must guard his otherwise open, ebullient personality, especially when reporters are within earshot.

He has learned that lesson the hard way. His reputation as a teacher was on the line earlier this year after being quoted in The Dallas Morning News as saying: "I've had beautiful young girls with major crushes on me. But I stay strong because I'm loyal to my family. Now my mind may be going a hundred miles an hour, but I stay strong."

Morales says his comments were misquoted and taken out of context. But the coverage prompted a small group of local citizens to call for his resignation. Morales suspects Gramm supporters were behind the incident. Mesquite school district officials say the issue is dead, and, in any case, they could not take action against a teacher who is on leave of absence.

By early afternoon, Morales makes his way back to campaign headquarters, a cramped office next to an abandoned Wal-Mart. The red, white, and blue Morales campaign banner over the operation's front door is one of the few signs of life in the half-empty strip mall.

Against the advice of his staff, Morales signs each and every thank-you note to donors--hundreds of them. But people tell him they appreciate the personal touch and extra exclamation marks, so he continues the ritual. This afternoon, he writes for about an hour before sitting down with with a group of television-advertising producers to talk about his commercials, which he wants aired late in the campaign. Just about everywhere he goes, Morales gets asked when he plans to respond to Gramm's TV ads. All he can say is soon--as soon as he can afford them. Then, finally, it's a race to catch his early evening flight to San Antonio, where his south Texas campaign swing officially begins with a fund-raiser that will keep the candidate up until after 1 a.m.

Morales is not the only one working hard. His staff, which includes seven paid workers and maybe a dozen and a half full-time and part-time volunteers, shares a small lobby with two tables and 10 cramped office spaces, only two of which have doors. There is a single bathroom but no hot water.

"This is a cold-water flat," jokes a volunteer. "But we have a microwave if you want your water heated."

The campaign was entirely volunteer-run though the primary and still relies on a growing network of rank-and-file supporters across the state who call themselves the "Viva Victor" campaign club. But after Morales' primary win, it became all too clear that the campaign needed additional help. So the candidate put former volunteers like Huynh on the payroll.

The windowless mail room is run by Bobby Gee, a grandmother who temporarily exchanged caring for her grandchildren for a campaign job. She logs in 10 hours a day, six days a week.

And then there's sign-maker Douglas O'Farrell. He paid for his own gas to follow the Gramm bus on a recent three-day campaign tour through east Texas--with two large Morales signs on the side of his 1979 gold pickup. "I like Morales because he's got guts," O'Farrell says. "I guess he likes me because I've got guts for following the Gramm bus."

Morales also took on Greg Weiner as his campaign director. Weiner, a Texas native, is on loan from U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey's office, where he worked as the Nebraska Democrat's press secretary. This is the 27-year-old's first shot at running a campaign.

Monday was busy, but Tuesday is so jampacked that Morales is sure to fall behind schedule. It's already hot and sticky when his 50-minute flight from San Antonio touches down at 9:40 a.m. in the south Texas town of Harlingen. By noon, temperatures will climb into the high 90s. Mark Flores, a law student on break from Howard University in Washington to help out with the campaign, meets Morales at the airport.

They immediately head west for the 45-mile trip to Mission High School, where Morales is scheduled to speak at 11. (It's one of two schools he'll visit today.) In his speech, the candidate saves some strong words for Gramm, calling his opponent "evil." Afterward, Morales asks reporters if he stepped over the line with his choice of words. Then, almost in his own defense, he adds, "That's just how I feel about him."

Such comments--and Morales has made his share--infuriate Gramm campaign staff, which uses them to portray Morales as a desperate candidate who strays from issues. "I've got to admit that we didn't think Mr. Morales would melt like plastic in the oven," says Gramm spokeswoman Hillrichs. "We didn't expect he'd spill such vitriol on the floor. He sputters and calls us liars and bigots. It's a sad way to end a campaign."

Student reactions to Morales' speech range from supportive to unimpressed. "He's just like any other candidate who makes lots of promises," one student told a reporter from The Washington Post.

But Morales doesn't have time to change the student's mind today. He's off to a Democratic party luncheon 15 miles north in the town of McAllen. The event draws about 100 party devotees who hear Morales explain how he refused to let Democratic spin doctors rewrite his Democratic convention speech. "I told them that if it's not my speech, I'm not going to give it," he declares. "That's the way it's been on my campaign, warts and all. Like it or not, it has to be me."

Some people might bristle at this brash attitude, but Morales is no regular candidate. Just ask Ann Bergh, a local attorney and former Gramm campaign volunteer who enthusiastically crossed party lines to support Morales. She shouts from the crowd: "I'm a Republican, and I'll vote for you, Victor. Here's a check." A native of El Salvador who has been a U.S. resident since 1980, Bergh says she thinks Morales stands for the little guy but declines to reveal her donation. "More importantly," she adds, "there will be a brand-new Mercedes-Benz driving around with a Morales sign."

Weiner, Morales' campaign director, is convinced that all his candidate would have to do to unseat Gramm is meet lots and lots of people, all 9.8 million of the state's registered voters. "Our job is to get him opportunities to meet people," Weiner says. "If this guy met everyone in Texas, we'd win by acclamation."

But that's a big job in a big state. Texas is the second-largest state in the country, stretching some 820 miles between its widest points. The state is more than three times the size of Kansas, which is no geographic shrimp, covering some 266,000 square miles.

The enormity of the job at hand leads Moore from the University of Texas to predict that Morales has little chance of beating Gramm. "It's going to be lopsided," he says. "Not to rain on his parade, but his surprise was winning the primary. His message just isn't getting out. Right now, it's a non-race."

Other observers say Morales would do better by boning up on issues or spending more time talking about Gramm's connection to big money. "There is a chance for Democrats to beat Phil Gramm, but their candidate has run a completely inept campaign," says Texas A&M's Bond.

Morales arrives at Harlingen High school at 2:30 for his second school visit. He's scheduled to talk to two senior civics classes for 45 minutes. At 4, an hour before his next campaign stop in the border city of Brownsville, he stops for lunch at a fast-food restaurant. He leans over his food like a protective lion. His eyes are bloodshot, and his eyelids are starting to droop. He only slept three hours the night before. Still, he talks patiently between nibbles from his rolled up tortilla and plate of rice. Toss out a subject, and he responds, like a hawk attacking its prey.

Yes, he rocked the boat once in a while as a teacher, but he also took innovative steps like arranging for county election staff to bring voting booths into his classroom. He's also remembered for taking students to the State Capitol in Austin, where they presented a bill that would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in state primaries if they were going to turn 18 by the November general elections. The bill died in committee.

"I teach in a very Republican area, and I knew kids were going to come up with these one-sided thoughts from their parents," Morales says. "It wasn't my job to tell them their parents were wrong, but it was my job when they brought information that was totally wrong. Then I needed to bring that up as a question--always a question."

Sure enough, some parents complained to school officials about Morales' political orientation. Former principal Frasier says he would relay the complaints to Morales, but that was where the issue would end.

And no, as a child he never dreamed of going into politics. Instead, he credits his students for pushing him to run for Crandall City Council, which was his first real political indoctrination. "They asked me to run," Morales recalls. "I said, 'Yea, right. It's 90 percent Anglo-American. It's conservative Bible Belt. I'm a newcomer. I tell the truth. I don't kiss up. And I'm going to win?'" He also remembers how his students' reactions hit him where it hurts. "They said, 'Mr. Morales, you always say you should try.'"

The last stop of the day is Brownsville, where local Democrats are opening a new headquarters and hosting a 6 p.m. rally. Morales slides back in the passenger seat along the way and looks like he might fall asleep for the 30-minute drive. But then he starts talking about the chance to debate Phil Gramm. The lethargy is gone. The fighting spirit spills out in every gesture.

"I would love it," he says. "He doesn't scare me a bit, never has. Doesn't intimidate me. I want him, though, man to man. He might dazzle with academic jargon on economic theory, but that has nothing to do with the regular workingman--nothing."

But it was Gramm, not Morales, who accepted a Sept. 29 debate that the Dallas media organized. Morales rejected the date. "This is the traditionaldebate," promised Gramm spokeswoman Hillrichs. "Senator Gramm stands ready to debate and will be at the studio."

As it turned out, the two candidates gave separate 30-minute interviews instead of a live debate. The interviews aired statewide on public broadcasting stations. Morales says he's prepared to debate closerto the election. "I picked October," he says, "so Phil Gramm wouldn't have time to run damage control after I whipped his butt." Gramm says Morales had his chance.

When Morales steps out of the car in Brownsville, the crowd of 60 or so overtakes him. One by one, enthusiastic supporters corner him in a hallway of the new Democratic office or back him against a wall to tell him how they've helped his campaign.

A red convertible, carrying Morales in the back, leads a caravan of a dozen or so cars on a 20-minute, police-escorted trip through town to the park. The park where Morales and the other dignitaries will speak is decorated with red, white, and blue banners, and pro-Democrat signs. Otherwise, there's nothing fancy about the gathering, which the local Texas Young Democrats organized. Most of the audience stands. Others sit on the tailgate of a truck backed into the park for the occasion. Concessions are limited to free popcorn and overly sweet punch.

Despite the modest turnout of about 120 people, organizers say it wasn't a bad show for a Tuesday night. They add that Morales is energizing young voters here along the border with Mexico, where 2,800 people have registered to vote in the past six months.

Morales pleads with the group not to give up on him, and urges them to stay involved. "I'm doing my best. If I falter sometimes--if I make a mistake--remember, I'm doing my best," he tells them. "Remember this, I'm simply trying to help. I don't have to be a U.S. senator to fulfill my life. That's why I tell the truth. Á What would you do if you send me back home? You send me back to my family and a job I love."

The rally ends with another Macarena line and an invitation from a group of young Democrats to join them for dinner. Morales looks sincerely interested, as if he wants to say yes. Flores, Morales' aide, appears leery of the proposition. After all, they still have to drive 180 miles north to Laredo tonight. And tomorrow, they start all over again.

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