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Hometown Hero, Not on Ballot

But President Bush Is Central Figure in Special West Texas House Race

Although President Bush’s approval ratings nationwide are slowly slipping, he remains a colossally influential figure in Texas’ 19th district, where he lived for many years.

All three of the top Republican candidates in the May 3 special House election — Midland businessman Mike Conaway, state Rep. Carl Isett and former Lubbock City Councilman Randy Neugebauer — tout their ties to Bush and are hoping potential donors and voters will associate them with the president when they write a check or cast a vote.

“It is a fact that he and I were in the oil business [together] and are friends,” Conaway said.

Conaway and Bush were partners in Bush Exploration from 1982 to 1987.

Alfredo Rodriguez, campaign manager for Isett, argued that “there is only one candidate who has sat in the office of then-Governor Bush and worked with him on passing a conservative agenda for Texas.”

Neugebauer has Bush connections of his own.

The co-chairmen of his campaign — Mike and Nancy Weiss — are “fishing buddies” with the Bushes, said a Neugebauer consultant.

Neugebauer has also hired consultant Todd Olson to handle general strategy. Olson is a partner in the direct-mail firm previously headed by top Bush political adviser Karl Rove.

Rep. Larry Combest (R), the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee who has held the seat since 1984, announced soon after the 2002 election that he would step down effective May 31. Because of the number of candidates seeking to replace him, a June 3 runoff pitting the two top votegetters is expected.

The district’s electoral patterns bear out the soundness of these candidates’ strategy to tie themselves to Bush.

In the 2000 presidential election, he won 80 percent of the vote in the 19th district, his highest percentage of any district in his home state. Under the redrawn lines, Bush would have taken 76 percent.

Bush’s roots in this West Texas district run even deeper, however, as he launched his maiden political campaign there in 1978.

Then a Midland oil executive, Bush was defeated by Lubbock businessman Kent Hance (D), 53 percent to 47 percent. Hance later switched parties, running unsuccessfully for Senate and governor. He is now Isett’s campaign chairman.

At this point, Conaway appears to be the candidate bearing the Bush imprimatur.

Midland County Republican Chairwoman Sue Brannon said that Bush had “a lot to do” with the success of Conaway’s first major fundraiser at the house of 1990 gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams (R) last week, which she described as the largest event she had ever witnessed.

“Mike’s qualifications and background make people know he is the man for the job and the man who can work in Washington,” Brannon added.

Born in Odessa, Conaway attended East Texas State University and began his career as an accountant. He now lives in Midland.

For the past seven years, he has served as a Bush appointee on the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, and currently serves as chairman. Conaway is less forward about being Bush’s so-called “favorite” candidate in the race.

“Whether anyone can lay claim to having the best head nod or wink from the president is dangerous territory,” said Conaway.

He did acknowledge, however, that in conversations with voters about his candidacy “[the Bush connection] comes up as part of my qualifications for being in this race.”

“I don’t hide from it,” he added. “I am proud of that association.”

Conaway noted that he has not spoken to Bush or any of the president’s close associates about the race, however, and Isett clearly will not cede Bush’s supposed support to Conaway.

Rodriguez, Isett’s campaign manager, admitted that there is a “whisper campaign” under way seeking to link Conaway to Bush, but argued that Isett’s “accomplishments,” and “experience” will carry the day.

Pointing to Isett’s service in the state House, Rodriguez said that his boss is “the only candidate in this race who has had Bush sign legislation that he carried on the Texas House floor.”

Isett was first elected to the state House in a 1996 special election. He is considered a close ally of state House Speaker Tom Craddick (R), who is from Midland, and Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Rodriguez also rejected the notion that Conaway’s apparent Bush backing has had a deleterious effect on his candidate’s fundraising, a critical component in such a short race.

“We have made several [financial] inroads and made a beachhead in the southern portion of the district, including Midland and Odessa,” Rodriguez said.

Neugebauer, the only major candidate to file a year-end Federal Election Commission report by press time, raised $311,000 from Nov. 21 to Dec. 31, though that total included a $150,000 personal loan. Neugebauer showed $309,000 on hand.

Neugebauer said the Bush issue has rarely come up either during fundraising calls or campaign stops throughout the district.

“People are more interested in the effectiveness of the candidates who are in the race,” he said. “A lot of the candidates align ourselves philosophically with the president and think he is doing a good job.”

In such a crowded field, however, a connection to Bush in the minds of voters could be enough to catapult a contender into the all-important runoff.

Conaway is philosophical about the process but confident of his ties to the president.

“Voters in this district will look at each of those claims [of Bush’s support] and see them for what they are and give them the proper amount of weight,” he said.

Neugebauer was more cautious about Bush’s influence on the race.

“The people out in West Texas are pretty independent-minded folk,” he said. “They are looking for a candidate that will listen to their needs.”

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