Thursday, August 02, 2007

Watts Video Shows He Has a Ways to Go in Texas

By Stuart Rothenberg

Having watched thousands of campaigns over the past couple of decades, I have come to understand that the candidate you meet in July of the off-year is not always the same person you see again 15 months later. Candidates, and their campaigns, often improve with experience, and they start to look better if and when their opponents start to fade.

Texas Senate hopeful Mikal Watts is getting plenty of attention these days because he has committed to putting as much as $10 million behind his bid for the Democratic nomination (against state Rep. Rick Noriega, a favorite of some in the party’s net roots) and his challenge to incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R).

A number of weeks ago, I noted my skepticism about whether Cornyn is beatable next year, and I’m not yet ready to change that tune. Yes, the Senator’s job rating in one June survey wasn’t intimidating, but most Republicans, and more than a few Democrats, have seen their numbers slide as a result of the public’s dissatisfaction with the state of the nation. We don’t yet know what the situation will be like next October.

But my doubts about Democratic prospects in the race don’t mean I am ignoring the contest. Being a handicapper requires that I re-evaluate and reassess. And if, at some point, I’m convinced Cornyn is in serious trouble, I’ll be more than happy to note it.

I haven’t yet met Watts, so I have little to judge him by except for his campaign bank account — currently standing at more than $4 million — and his Web site.

His money obviously is impressive. But money rarely is enough. If it were the only thing that mattered, Michael Huffington (R) would have been elected to the Senate from California in 1994, Al Checchi (D) would have been elected governor of that state in 1998 (or at least won the Democratic nomination), Blair Hull (D) would now be a senator from Illinois and Tony Sanchez (D) might have come close in his Texas gubernatorial bid in 2002.

So Watts’ wallet gets my attention, but where do I look after that? His video is one of the few things on his Web site, other than a bunch of photographs of early campaign events, a bio and a donation form. So I watched it.

The first half of the four-minute, 15 second video is straightforward enough. Watts introduces himself and talks about his education, his parents, his own family and his interest in public service. He’s a trial lawyer, so it’s not surprising that he’s poised, articulate and polished.

The second half of the video probably is the silliest, most transparent attempt to deliver a message I have ever seen.

Watts wants us to know that he is a “fighter” and a “leader,” and he apparently thinks that viewers of his video are a little dense. You’d either have to be in a coma or not understand English to miss Watts’ message. The Democratic hopeful uses a form of the word “fight” 11 times in the last two minutes and 15 seconds of the video. And he uses a form of the word “leader” another eight times during that same period.

In one section of the video lasting 37 seconds, Watts uses the word “fighter” six times — an average of once every 6.17 seconds:

“I have been a fighter my entire career, fighting for the rights of average, working families here in Texas. And I have proven that I will stay in that fight and give it my all until we win. Texans are looking for a Senator who is a leader, who will fight for them. Someone who will fight for families here in Texas rather than special interests there in Washington. I am certain that as we travel around the state and see more and more good Texans, that my message of real leadership and real change in Washington is a message that is going to hit home here in Texas. I am confident that Texans will join me in this fight.”

There are plenty of attributes that voters want in their candidates. They certainly want leaders and, at least now, forces for change. I certainly wouldn’t criticize Watts or any candidate for mentioning them. It’s the way he talks about them that is so aggravating. It sounds as if he thinks he’s the first guy to run on those buzzwords.

And there are other things in the video, such as his statement, “I have traveled around all portions of Texas, and I have talked to hundreds of Texans — hundreds and hundreds of them actually.”

The 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimate of the population of Texas was 23,507,783. Watts says that he has spoken to “hundreds and hundreds” of Texans. He might have waited until he had talked to at least “thousands and thousands” of Texans before deciding that he had an idea what people in the state want.

Then there is his comment that Texans have “come to expect leaders” like Lyndon Johnson, not “partisans like John Cornyn.” Well, Cornyn may very well be a partisan, but Johnson wasn’t one? Is he kidding?

I’m not certain whether Watts’ rhetoric is classic political boilerplate or an effort to neutralize the positioning of Noriega, a state legislator and veteran of the war in Afghanistan. If and when I meet Watts, I may have a completely different view of him and his prospects. But for now, I’d suggest that he re-do his video, making it more professional and more thoughtful.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 30, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.