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“So you really think you can beat him?” says a corpulent man wearing a gimme cap. “I’m going to stomp him into the ground,” assures Democratic congressional candidate Richard Morrison, who has just arrived at a labor union barbecue in La Marque, Texas this balmy Saturday in mid-October. “I’ve heard that old song before,” says the man, underscoring the fact it will be no cakewalk defeating Tom DeLay, Republican Majority Leader, 10-term congressional veteran and arch-nemesis of the Democratic Party. If not for his salt-and-pepper hair, the baby-faced Morrison would not look his 37 years. An environmental lawyer, he says there is “nothing” left of his law practice. “You can’t beat the most powerful man in Congress being a part-time lawyer.” Even though this gathering is pro-Morrison, he works the crowd hard, “loving on his base,” as he calls it. “This is the Galveston County portion of the 22nd Congressional District,” he says. “I win this without even coming down here.” But to offset DeLay’s strength in fiercely Republican portions of Fort Bend County (Sugar Land), Harris County (Clear Lake) and Brazoria County (Pearland), Morrison maintains he must double the normal turnout in Galveston County. “I’ve got to keep them excited about me,” he says. DeLay is the architect of the controversial Texas redistricting plan that sought to solidify the gains of Republicans in Texas by increasing the size of their U.S. House delegation by at least five seats in a noncensus year. So it’s hard to imagine DeLay would carve himself a district that was less Republican than the district he won in his 2002 landslide when he garnered 66 percent of the vote. Although his redrawn district remains unflinchingly Republican (more than 60 percent), 30 percent of the constituents are new to DeLay, and Morrison sees that as an opportunity. “Howdy ladies, how you doing?” says Morrison, approaching a table of women up to their wrists in barbecue ribs. “No need for you folks to clean your hands before you shake mine. I got four kids at home.” They laugh. “Ya’ll read the Galveston County Daily News this morning?” he asks. They haven’t. The Clear Lake High School debating team is sponsoring a congressional debate for the candidates of District 22 the following Tuesday, but DeLay, according to the article, was refusing to show. Morrison tells the women he’ll still be there. “I challenged him to this debate, but he is scared of me.” But Tom “the Hammer” DeLay stated his own reasons for not attending: “A debate would be for his benefit, not for mine,” DeLay told the Daily News. He said his own polls placed his support at “56 percent” and claimed that Morrison’s “name ID is nothing.” Independent candidate Michael Fjetland, however, agreed to participate in the debate. An international lawyer who has served as a “TV terrorism analyst” for Fox 26 News in Houston, Fjetland claims he is the true wildcard in the race. Fjetland has twice gone against DeLay in the Republican primary, running underfunded campaigns and winning nearly 20 percent of the vote. Yet he maintains that only he can peel away votes from DeLay. “If someone puts a gun to their heads, these Republicans are not going to vote for a Democrat,” he says. But as a protest against DeLay, “they might vote for an independent who used to be a Republican.” Lacking a political party to support him, Fjetland again has little financial support, raising only $15,000 in contributions. Undaunted, he attacks DeLay as being out of touch with his district and Morrison as being out of touch with Republicans. But a day spent on the campaign trail with Morrison reveals he is not shy about wrestling DeLay for Republicans — something he will have to do if he has any chance of winning. “You’ve got to give Morrison credit for running a very energetic campaign and not missing any opportunities,” says Harvey Kronberg, the editor of the Internet political hot sheet, The Quorum Report. “Anecdotally, I know there are a lot of Republican businessmen in his district who feel DeLay hasn’t delivered a lot of bacon to offset the level of discomfort they have with his national profile.” Morrison was given no hope of unseating DeLay, even by the Democratic establishment, whose natural constituencies, such as the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, turned Morrison down when he sought their support. On the stump, Morrison seems a natural campaigner, leaving no hand unshaken, no back unslapped, no baby unadmired. A political nobody, he took on this mythic David versus Goliath struggle only after no one dared to step forward. What no one counted on was how Democratic Party antipathy for DeLay would translate into money. Employing many of the tactics used by former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, Morrison established a strong Internet presence and become the darling of those who see DeLay as a political apocalypse. Whether it was a Travis County grand jury indicting three DeLay aides on charges of allegedly soliciting illegal campaign contributions, a Senate Indian Affairs committee investigating whether DeLay associates allegedly traded on their connections with him to obtain $66 million in contracts from six Indian tribes or the three House Ethics Committee reprimands he received for abusing his office, Morrison has been the beneficiary — at least financially — of DeLay’s woes. DeLay’s campaign spokesman Jonathan Grella says DeLay vigorously denies all the allegations against him. And in response to the last two reprimands, both of which arose out of the Texas redistricting battle, DeLay issued a press release attacking his chief accuser, U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, for “manipulating the ethics process in pursuit of his own personal vendetta.” (Bell lost his primary election in a redrawn district.) Morrison pounces on each negative DeLay headline with press releases and Internet fund-raisers, which have parlayed his candidacy into a national campaign and helped him net more than $500,000 in contributions, he says. Although DeLay’s ethical transgressions — both alleged and substantiated — fuel the passions of partisan grass-rooters and outraged Web bloggers, just how they play in Pearland is a different matter entirely. ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL Morrison has six appearances scheduled on this Saturday and would have scheduled more had he not attended a New York City fund-raiser in his honor the night before. (“Brother, I can’t tell one day from the next,” he says.) It’s 2 p.m., and he is late to a speaking engagement at a retired postal workers Halloween luncheon in Space City. Nonetheless, he manages to squeeze in a brief TV interview with a reporter from Houston’s KHOU Channel 11 news. Donning a gray suit coat sans tie, Morrison smiles softly into the camera as if he were examining a friendly witness. The KHOU reporter tosses him softball questions, asking him to respond to an earlier DeLay interview when the congressman claimed he had the election locked up. “Our polling numbers show this is a horserace,” he counters. “I’d been told that there were so many Republicans in Fort Bend County, there is no way we could get them to ticket-split… . People are telling me that while President [George W.] Bush represents their values, Tom DeLay does not.” (Morrison says his latest poll shows him seven points behind DeLay, with 20 percent undecided.) “We talked to Mr. DeLay this morning,” says the reporter, “and he argues that the House [Ethics Committee] efforts are a witch-hunt and politically motivated. How much of a factor are these allegations in your campaign?” “This is a Republican-controlled Congress in an election year that unanimously admonished Mr. DeLay… . It’s not partisan, like he says. It was five Republicans and five Democrats… . It’s going to be a factor.” But DeLay spokesman Grella claims he can see no voter fallout from the reprimands. “Those who know him [DeLay] the best recognize that the Democrats have been looking for his scalp for a long time now.” Even Morrison’s own consultants tend to agree that the reprimands don’t resonate with the voters as loudly as Morrison’s supporters had hoped. Instead, they have built Morrison’s message around local issues, claiming that DeLay has been so focused on grabbing power and money for himself and Republicans that he has lost touch with the people of his district. “I will always be there for you, brother,” Morrison tells a retiree at the Halloween luncheon. If Austin, Texas-based Republican strategist Ted Delisi were advising DeLay (and he is not), he would tell his client to act as though Morrison doesn’t exist. “You wouldn’t debate him or give him the attention he strategically needs,” he says. Sell his incumbency, his strong Republican leadership credentials, Delisi says, but don’t engage the opposition. According to DeLay’s campaign, they run hard in every race, but if Saturday’s debate-refusal headline is any indication, DeLay may be pursuing Delisi’s strategy of non-engagement. Yet Nathan Wilcox, co-general campaign manager for Morrison, says his candidate is slowly drawing out DeLay. For the first time in more than a decade, DeLay has opened campaign headquarters — one in Sugar Land and one in Clear Lake. He has run three different television spots and begun spending more time in the district. “He isn’t spending money on TV for the fun of it when he could give that money to knock out Martin Frost,” Wilcox contends, referring to the heated U.S. House race for the 32nd District between Democratic Congressman Martin Frost and Republican Congressman Pete Sessions. “He is not showing up at a charity auction in Needville when he could be banking $300,000 at a fund-raiser in Washington. DeLay recognizes his vulnerability.” BIDDING WAR It’s 3:30 p.m. and Morrison arrives at the Needville Harvest Festival in western Fort Bend County. He trades his gray suit, black oxfords and campaign staffer for blue jeans, cowboy boots, and his wife and four children. In full-rural mode, he now hopes to snag some “Reagan Democrats,” as he calls them — those blue-collar conservatives who feel that Tom DeLay has forgotten them, says Morrison, in his drive to consolidate Republican power. “These people don’t like the way DeLay stands up for corporate interests,” Morrison claims. “This is where all the ticket-splitters live.” Morrison, labeled a moderate by the Houston Chronicle, claims he is conservative on issues such as balancing the budget and gun owners’ rights. He even puts a conservative bent on the reason he was attracted to environmental law. “When I grew up, I went hunting or fishing nearly every day. I wanted to preserve the environment so my children could grow up with the same kind of experiences that I had.” As Morrison stands in front of a “Morrison for Congress” booth at the festival, he collars passersby who seem more interested in peddlers who are hawking domino sets and body lotion than in talking politics. When a staffer tells him that he has just secured the Houston Chronicle endorsement, Morrison seems pleased but not surprised. “I don’t think they have endorsed DeLay since 2000,” he says. “And I promised them during the primary that I was going to be a serious candidate, raise a bunch of money and hire a professional staff. When I went to the editorial board meeting, I told them, ‘I delivered on my promises, and you all owe me this endorsement.’ “ Since he decided to become a candidate in late August 2003, he says he has block-walked 125 of the 293 precincts in his district, and attended more homecoming parades, county fairs and festivals than he can remember. Is DeLay doing this kind of community outreach? “He has TV commercials,” Morrison says. “But that’s all we have seen of him.” Minutes later, Morrison’s campaign coordinator, Bernetta Young, runs up to Morrison and tells him, “Tom DeLay is here! He is at the live auction bidding on some things.” If Morrison is going to be denied the chance to out-debate DeLay, he can at least out-bid him. “Well, let’s go bid on some stuff, too,” he says. DeLay is sitting under a covered area, smiling among a crowd of 50 or so people and overbidding on small items, the proceeds of which will go to upgrade Needville’s campgrounds. This is the first time their paths have crossed on the campaign trail, and DeLay, true to form, does not acknowledge his opponent’s presence — even though Morrison sits two rows in front of him. The fast-talking auctioneer, sensing opportunity and extra cash, begins playing politics with the crowd. “The next item is $25 worth of dry cleaning,” he says. “Every politician needs a good cleaner.” Morrison outbids a justice of the peace who is running for re-election. “Sold to Richard Morrison for U.S. Congress for $45,” chants the auctioneer. Giving DeLay equal time, the auctioneer schmoozes the crowd. “Everybody here know that Tom DeLay is a Republican?” he jokes. “Well, just ask George W.” “Let’s have a debate right now,” yells the auctioneer’s assistant. “A debate?” questions the auctioneer. Morrison leans forward, shouting, “He won’t agree to debate me!” “Alright then, let’s sell something,” says the auctioneer. DeLay bids $100 to purchase some bread pudding; DeLay bids $250 to win a Texas A&M floor mat; Morrison outbids DeLay for a burnt-orange watercooler; a DeLay supporter outbids a Morrison supporter and pays $700 for an ice chest. “I am sure glad it’s an election year,” the auctioneer laughs. “If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be making any money.” DeLay leaves first, followed by Morrison with a new gas cooker ($300) hoisted on his shoulder. “It’s not about the bidding,” he says. “It’s about them saying your name.” OCTOBER SURPRISE It’s the Tuesday morning of the debates and Morrison and Fjetland are being interviewed on an early morning radio call-in program. DeLay also was invited to appear, Morrison says, but declined. Morrison tells outraged callers that DeLay also has declined to participate in this evening’s debate, repeating the Galveston County Daily News‘ account that DeLay claimed a debate would only benefit Morrison and not DeLay. The debate is scheduled for 7 p.m., and more than 200 people arrive at a Clear Lake elementary school, most of them Morrison supporters. Morrison, Fjetland and a Libertarian candidate who oddly also is named Morrison get ready to share the stage with a student-moderator. A few minutes before the debate, organizers receive a phone call: DeLay is on his way. “He [DeLay] had plans to attend a charity event, but in the late-afternoon the congressman said he really wanted to attend the debate,” spokesman Grella later said. DeLay told the media that he didn’t want to disappoint the “kids” who had worked so hard to organize the debate. Richard Morrison and Fjetland felt sucker-punched by DeLay, lulled into believing he wouldn’t participate. “I didn’t think he was going to be there,” Fjetland told the Houston Chronicle. “If I would have known, I would have prepared better.” Although there were no pundits or pollsters to declare a winner, the Morrison camp claimed its candidate had won — as did DeLay’s. “The congressman was able to share his agenda for the future and demonstrate his superior grasp of local and national issues,” Grella says. “The debate crystallized the stature gap between the majority leader and the political novices he shared the stage with.” Even if Morrison didn’t prove himself to be the more knowledgeable debater, he had finally flushed out DeLay. His mere presence seemed a public acknowledgment that DeLay was in a hard-fought race and perhaps Morrison was someone who needed to be reckoned with.

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