sensitive issue. Since HB 2292 went into effect in September 2003, 151,000 children have been kicked off the popular program, according to state figures. NOw HB 2292, which seemed a boon to Wohlgemuth’s candidacy, threatens to sink it. That’s due mostly to Edwards’ skill as a campaigner. He has more than 20 years experience between his seven terms in the House and eight years before that in the state Senate. On the stump, his speeches are informal talks, peppered with the “you knows,” and “let me tell ya’s” of an expert politico. Edwards has a rare knack for condensing complex policy issues into a single declarative sentence. CHIP and Medicaid policy aren’t exactly the stuff of crackling political oratory. Not a speech goes by, however, in which Edwards doesn’t rip Wohlgemuth’s HB 2292 for cutting 151,000 children from CHIP. After reeling off a series of grim statistics, he usually pauses and says with a hint of anger, “She didn’t cut overhead; she cut kids:’ The Edwards campaign is running a devastating television ad featuring Jamie Jones, a single mother whose husband died tragically several years ago. Jones cannot afford private health insurance, and her 3-year-old lost CHIP coverage as a direct result of policy changes in Wohlgemuth’s bill. “Arlene’s strength is also her weakness;’ Edwards says in an interview. “Her strength is that she’s grounded in the far right of the Republican Party:’ In Edwards’ formulation, this grants Wohlgemuth impassioned support from about 35 to 40 percent of the electorate. “That’s a weakness, as well, because it allows us to scoop up moderate Republican voters as well as independents” who are put off by Wohlgemuth’s hard-line ideology. If there’s anything Chet Edwards has learned how to do in politics, it’s appeal to moderately conservative voters. Both campaigns hope to capture those moderate Republicans in the Bryan-College Station area. Wohlgemuth expects to win at least 60 percent of the vote in Johnson County. Edwards plans to duplicate that margin in the Waco area. That makes the Bryan-College Station region largely decisive. Brazos County is conservative country and would seem to favor Wohlgemuth. Edwards, however, boasts Aggie connections \(he graduated from Texas A&M, and worked for longtime incumbencyhe has steered lots of federal funding to Texas A&M through his seat on the House Appropriations Committeemay pull him through. 1 f Wolhgemuth had any lingering illusions about how tough a campaigner Edwards is, they likely vanished at a debate at Hill College on a warm Monday in late September. Hill College is located in the tiny burg of Hillsboro, which resides in Hill County, all of which are misnomers given the flatness of the surrounding ranch land. In the calculus of the campaign, it’s contested territory. Hillsboro sits 40 miles north of Edwards’ home in Waco and 50 miles southeast of Wohlgemuth’s base. All of which makes the debate important. The election is just six weeks off. It’s unlikely either candidate will get back to Hillsboro in that time. The debate is probably the candidates’ last, best chance to win over the voters here. The high school-like auditorium is filled with roughly 300 potential voters: workers on their lunch break, retirees, and Hill College students. Edwards, clad in his Brooks Brothers catalogue combination of navy blue blazer over gray slacks, walks in alone. He sits in the front row to wait for the debate to begin, and briefly chatted up two reporters sitting nearby. In the back of the room, Wohlgemuth, wearing a lively salmon-colored power suit, huddles with her campaign aides for a last-minute prep. The candidates make their way onto the small wooden stage. After fairly forgettable opening statements, the debate picks up with the first question from the audience about the country’s dependence on foreign oil. After extolling the virtues of President Bush’s energy bill, Edwards rips into his less-experienced opponent. “You know, in Congress, seniority makes a difference. Either of us will be one of 435 members of Congress. Don’t forget that. So seniority and committee assignments make a difference. I’m the only Texan of either party on the Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee, a key subcommittee, that encourages energy production…. It would take Ms. Wohlgemuth until 2018 to accrue the seniority that I have.” When she returns to the podium, Wohlgemuth responds, “I will support our president in his energy policies. More importantly, I will be supporting the chairman of energy Mr. Barton has represented you well. Yet his voting record and Mr. Edwards’ voting record differ 84 percent of the time during this current session [of Congress]:’ This echoes one of Wohlgemuth’s main campaign themes: Chet Edwards may sound like a conservative, but he votes like a liberal. Her effort to portray Edwards as ideologically too far left for his new district has been impressive. Rarely does Edwards’ name escape Wohlgemuth’s lips without “liberal” attached. On nearly every issue, from taxes to abortion to gun rights, Wohlgemuth recalls a voting score, usually calculated by a conservative special-interest group backing her campaign, that puts Edwards in the most liberal light possible. When asked, in an interview, to name the biggest challenge facing her campaign, Wohlgemuth says, “Overcoming the liberal trial lawyer money [given to Edwards]:’ When asked what has surprised her thus far in the race, her response stays on-message: She hadn’t realized how liberal Edwards’ voting record really is. “Now, I know my opponent has said, ‘Well, that’s just the Republicans calling me a liberal: But, actually, Americans for Democratic Action, which is the oldest liberal lobbying organization in the country, rates Chet’s voting record 80 percent liberal. So it’s the liberals who are calling Mr. Edwards liberal.” This, of course, is an old saw that Republicans have trotted out for more than two decades now. In a district this Republican, though, the “he’s too liberal” attack can be particularly potent. \(Edwards responds to this on the stump with his centrist credentials: “I have worked to be a bipartisan representative for all the people in this district, not just a privileged attacks with repeated references to the Bush-Cheney ticket. 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER .10/22/04
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