SAN ANTONIO — Former President Bill Clinton strode into Texas on Thursday to campaign for two Democrats looking to eke out congressional victories in the otherwise fiercely conservative state.
He spoke to a raucous crowd that included cheerleaders, a mariachi band, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and thousands of screaming supporters at a school gym in San Antonio. Here, Democratic congressional hopeful Pete Gallego is locked in one of the nation's closest U.S. House races with freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, a 63-year-old Laredo businessman.
"If you look at the campaign that's being run against Pete Gallego, it's your basic, standard tea party deal: 'The government would mess up a two-car parade, and God is on my side,' " Clinton said. "I don't want to get into a religious dispute. But the Bible that I read said the only time Jesus got really angry is when he had to run the moneychangers out of the temple."
Later Thursday, Clinton flew to Beaumont to appear before more than 1,000 people at a baseball park on behalf of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson. Lampson faces Republican state Rep. Randy Weber in a district that runs along the Gulf Coast and is currently held by Ron Paul, who is retiring from Congress.
Gallego, 50, is a longtime state lawmaker from tiny Alpine trying to unseat Canseco, who won the seat in 2010 over then-congressman Ciro Rodriguez with less than 50 percent of the vote. The sprawling 23rd Congressional District — which has switched from Republican to Democrat to Republican since 2004 — stretches 600 miles west to El Paso and is nearly two-thirds Hispanic.
The race hinges on the boundary cutting through San Antonio, America's seventh largest city, and surrounding Bexar County — the most urban areas of a district otherwise mostly made up of rural counties. Both sides have spent at least $5 million combined on television ads.
Since 2006, Clinton has rallied Democrats three times in this district, including Thursday. His last visit in 2010 couldn't stop a Republican victory.
Scott Yeldell, Canseco's campaign manager, said Gallego had previously agreed to a debate in Del Rio on Thursday but canceled it to be in San Antonio with Clinton.
"Gallego is no Bill Clinton," Yeldell said. "He's much too far to the left. He basically believes the government should be responsible for everything."
Jockeying for the 23rd District seat is getting increasingly nasty. A recent mailing by Canseco's campaign featured an image of Jesus and accused the Democratic Party of failing to include God as part of its official platform. Gallego, a Roman Catholic, has criticized his opponent for injecting religion into politics.
Gallego didn't mention the incident Thursday. But bulldog Clinton did, saying that even though conservatives claim to defend religion, the mailing doesn't do that.
"They always say they represent the original intent of the framers' Constitution," Clinton said. "They would be appalled by anybody trying to use any religious image to advance a particular candidacy."
Clinton also noted that Gallego supports the health care overhaul, which he said has forced insurance companies to refund money if they don't spend 80 to 85 percent of what they collect in premiums on patient care. Clinton said the law has ensured that 1.5 million Texans have gotten $167 million back from their insurance companies this year.
There won't be many close calls in Texas on Election Day. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney should easily win the state's 38 electoral votes, and tea party insurgent Ted Cruz is believed to have a commanding lead over Democrat Paul Sadler in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
That's why the Democrats are hoping for a few bright spots with Gallego and Lampson — the latter especially symbolic since Paul served so long in Congress.
While Lampson and Weber's contest may be closer than once thought, it has not been heated as Gallego's race. National Republican groups have supported Canseco — who reported about $1.1 million cash on hand in a recent campaign finance report, 10 times what Gallego had.
But ads backing Gallego are being paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Majority PAC and the League of Conservation Voters.