The Unbearable Lightness of Victor

He's a nice guy. He drives a pickup truck. But Victor Morales doesn't belong in the U.S. Senate.

Driving west on Highway 67, Victor Morales has the sun at his back and a St. Patrick's Day parade on the horizon. Early this Saturday morning, the grandson of Mexican immigrants stuck a shamrock in his lapel, slipped a toothbrush in his pocket and set out in a 4-year-old Nissan truck. It is arguably the most famous pickup in Texas at the moment, driven by a man who is giving the Texas Democratic Party fits.

Little attention was paid last fall when the unknown schoolteacher entered the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Morales was another geek, one more of those quaint--if misguided--vanity candidates who pop up on the ballot every election season. Their naive faith in democracy is refreshing, but they do nothing more than clutter up the radar.

The real race to decide who would challenge Republican Phil Gramm for the U.S. Senate was supposed to be between two Texas congressmen--John Bryant and Jim Chapman--heavy lifters with all the political accouterments Morales lacks, like credentials, experience, records, staff, spin doctors, money and, of course, organizations.

But with his truck and about $8,000 of his own money, Morales stunned the political pros. He took a leave of absence from his job as a government teacher at Poteet High School in Mesquite. He drove more than 50,000 miles, usually by himself. He'd stop at gas stations and shake hands. People would ask him why his truck was dented. He'd blame it on his wife. They'd nod, and take some leaflets, maybe a bumper sticker.

Morales worked the highways and cafes. He spoke before any crowd that would have him. He showed up for candidate debates and forums, along the way receiving only perfunctory acknowledgment from the Democratic Party and the press.

And in the March 12 primary, the unknown, 46-year-old schoolteacher blew away the field. He led the four-man race, garnering more than 322,000 votes across the state. Drawing 36 percent of the primary vote, Morales is the front runner going into an April runoff with Bryant, who trailed with 30 percent. Chapman is out of the race entirely, as is Houston attorney John Odam, who finished a dismal fourth.

Naturally, Morales is quite proud of himself. "I'm a tough little bugger, aren't I?" he says with a grin.

Now the Democrats aren't sure what to do. The power brokers and party hierarchy grimace at the thought of Morales as their candidate. Unseating Phil Gramm is a formidable enough challenge without a fluke candidate as the party nominee. The national press is already calling, wanting to make a folk hero out of Morales.

"People are voting for this guy because he's a schoolteacher driving around in a pickup truck," grumbles one Bryant partisan. "What they don't understand is that he's a schoolteacher driving around in a pickup truck."

But 322,000 votes give the politicos pause. Few want to openly criticize a candidate who can draw that much support, and they surely don't want to belittle all the Democrats who cast those ballots.

Pundits and opponents have sought a serendipitous explanation for Morales' confoundingly strong showing. They contend that Morales, the only candidate with an Hispanic surname on the ballot, surely benefited from his heritage among Hispanic voters. They also say he piggybacked on the good name of Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, drawing votes with name recognition borrowed from the only Hispanic who holds statewide office.

Victor Morales prefers to think his success is actually due to his months on the road, buying gas at $12 a tankful and meeting voters a few at a time. He didn't talk to 322,000 people in his travels, Morales acknowledges, but he is loath to let the more famous attorney general get credit for his victory.

"By and large, people know Victor Morales and Dan Morales are different people," he says. "A teacher running around in a truck is not the attorney general. The analysts, the experts, continue to say it, but there is no confusion among the people I have talked to on the street."

Whatever the case, four days after his improbable political quest should have foundered in the shallow waters of conventional wisdom, Morales is back in the truck and headed for the St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin, having been invited by a local Democratic activist. Dublin is in Erath County, Morales explains, dairy and peanut country where this particular grandson of Mexican immigrants has never before ventured. He'll want to stop in Stephenville and wash the truck before the parade, so as to make a good impression.

On the road to Dublin, Morales begins considering what will happen now that he's a bona fide political candidate and not just a novelty act. He's expecting greater scrutiny from the press and his opponents. And if he beats Bryant--which is not impossible--Morales will face Gramm: two-term incumbent, master of a $3 million election juggernaut, and a mean campaigner even by Texas standards.

Morales will have to flesh out his stands on issues, something he hasn't had time to do what with all his driving around. A stack of unopened newspapers lies on his floorboard, underneath an unopened Big Grab bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos. He'll have to start catching up on things.

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