THE EYES ARE ON TEXAS Senate seat a top priority for White House


WASHINGTON -- It was big news when the Clinton administration punished a disloyal Alabama senator recently by moving 90 NASA jobs from Huntsville, Ala., to Houston.

Far less attention, however, was paid to the winner in the deal -- Texas Sen. Bob Krueger, who rushed to endorse the White House windfall for his state.

The obscure Texas senator has become the object of President Clinton's political desire, and for good reason. Mr. Krueger is in a tough fight to hold the Democrats' 57th Senate seat this spring in a special election that also looms as a test of Mr. Clinton's popularity in a major state.

The seat was put in jeopardy after Mr. Clinton chose Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his treasury secretary. Now the president is doing everything he can to help Mr. Krueger, 52, who was appointed by Texas Gov. Ann Richards in January to fill the Bentsen seat on a temporary basis.

Recently, the White House authorized the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to spend $1.4 million (the maximum allowed by law) on behalf of the Krueger campaign, even though other Democrats are among the 16 or more candidates expected to be on the May 1 ballot.

Last week, Vice President Al Gore was dispatched to the state, where he starred at fund-raising events that attracted about $1.2 million in contributions for Mr. Krueger. Mr. Clinton is expected to make a similar trip.

The president even made sure Mr. Krueger was at his side for a recent White House photo session to promote Mr. Clinton's plans for cutting wasteful federal spending (Mr. Krueger is making waste in government a big campaign issue).

While other members of Congress are being slapped down for not following the administration line, Mr. Krueger has reportedly been given leeway to vote the narrow interests of his state when necessary. On Thursday, he was one of three Democratic senators who joined an unsuccessful Republican attempt to kill the energy tax at the heart of Mr. Clinton's budget plan.

For his part, the soft-spoken senator seems almost dazed by the way things have been going.

While other states got hammered in the latest round of military base closings, "we gained 970 military positions and 790 civilian jobs," he noted in an interview.

A former two-term congressman who also served as a Carter administration envoy to Mexico, Mr. Krueger doesn't pretend to have enormous clout.

"I can't be so presumptuous at all," says Mr. Krueger, an Oxford-educated Shakespearean scholar who, it seems safe to say, is the first Texas senator to display volumes of 17th-century verse and Elizabethan drama on the coffee table in his office.

Still, Mr. Krueger and his state are benefiting disproportionately from a number of White House decisions at a time when others are being asked to sacrifice.

The most prominent examples are Mr. Clinton's proposals for continued federal funding of two controversial big-ticket items: the superconducting supercollider, being built in Texas, and space station Freedom, each worth thousands of jobs in the state. Molly Ivins, the state's leading political columnist, has dubbed Mr. Krueger the "$11 billion senator" (roughly the amount that could be saved over the next four years if both projects were eliminated).

In spite of the White House help, the Clinton connection could wind up doing Mr. Krueger more harm than good, political analysts say. Texas was Mr. Clinton's worst big state in last November's election; he drew only 37 percent of the vote against his two Texas-based rivals, George Bush and Ross Perot.

Mr. Clinton's standing in the state dropped further after his decision -- endorsed by Mr. Krueger -- to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military, a move that was particularly unpopular among the state's large population of current and retired military personnel.

"My guess is that Clinton's popularity is almost lower here than any other state," says Fred Meyer, the Texas Republican chairman. He hopes to make the special election an early referendum on the president's performance.

The senator is campaigning on anti-Washington themes, but denies he's distancing himself from the president. Still, he is careful to emphasize his independence.

"I don't think the people of Texas would say you either want to go down the line with Clinton or against him," Mr. Krueger says.

Richard W. Murray, a University of Houston political scientist, regards Mr. Krueger as a "vulnerable candidate" but says most Texas voters know little or nothing about most of the contenders yet. A runoff is likely between the top two finishers, with Mr. Krueger expected to be one finalist.

Adding to the uncertainty is the state's unique history in special Senate elections. In 1961, a field of 73 candidates competed for the Senate seat left vacant by Lyndon B. Johnson's election as vice president. The surprise victor was a Republican college professor, John G. Tower, whose election helped start a two-party trend in Texas and much of the South.

This year's dark-horse contender is a wealthy Perot backer, Richard Fisher of Dallas, a political outsider who says he'll spend at least $2.5 million of his own money.

Mr. Perot has said his political organization, United We Stand America, would not make an endorsement but the group plans to keep voters "well informed."

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