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Boots on the Ground Veteran Rick Noriega stands up to Bush, Cornyn, and the Iraq war By JAN REID IRick Noriega, the Democratic Houston legislator and candidate for U.S. Senate, is tall, trim, handsome, and bald. The National Guard lieutenant colonel, 49, was working a small crowd of San Antonio Democrats and donors this past September with both the habitual shoulders-back posture of a career soldier and the fluid ease of a onetime junior college infielder. “I’m nobody’s Don Quixote,” he told me in a later interview, acknowledging the odds against his turning out Texas’ incumbent junior senator, Republican John Cornyn. “I’m too old to go off tilting at windmills. But I’m fed up.” Though Noriega addresses many issues, the heart of his campaign is the mess that George W. Bush, neocon ideologues, and apologists like Cornyn have made of the war in Iraq. The challenger’s campaign logo, and metaphor, is a dusty pair of Army combat bootsa pointed distinction between himself and Cornyn. On seeing American hostages humiliated in Tehran by Iranian militants in 1979, when he was 21, Noriega joined the Guard as a private in a burst of conviction that he had to do something. He was a corporal when he won an ROTC scholarship at the University of Houston. Nearing 30, after a decade of work for the Texas Insurance Commission, he was accepted by the John F. Kennedy School of Public Affairs at Harvard. After graduate school, he came back to Houston, ran a losing race for the state House of Representatives at 32, worked as an aide of Houston state Sen. John Whitmire, got a job lobbying the Legislature for a public utilities firm, then ran again for the House and won in 1998. After 9/11, by then a major, Noriega was called up in 2004 and sent to Afghanistan to command an infantry unit with a lineage that goes back to the Alamo. Democrats know why they want to vote politicians like Cornyn out of office. But not since Ann Richards have Texas Democrats fielded a major candidate who inspired them to weather a long, uphill fight and in the end turn out to vote. 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 14, 2007 Could this great-grandson of Mexican immigrants be the one? Noriega has a compelling story. But can he get it told to hundreds of thousands of people, including the necessary independents and crossover Republicans? Cornyn, whom Bush nicknamed “Corndog” when Bush was Texas’ governor, barks at anyone, including GOP Senate colleagues, who dares criticize the president’s rationale and conduct of his self-proclaimed War on Terror. Cornyn has toed the administration lines on Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and torture. But Cornyn, a 55-year-old native of San Antonio, was too young to have to make any personal decisions about service in Vietnam, and in the post-draft era he plunged into law school and a practice defending against medical malpractice suits, setting his sights on a district court seat that became his springboard to a GOP career. He was elected attorney general in 1998 and U.S. senator in 2002, pulled along in both races by Bush’s popularity in Texas and the guidance and grooming of Karl Rove. For all his hawkish bluster, Cornyn has never had to risk his neck under fire or even stand for a military inspection. Since Noriega wears fatigues and boots as a reserve member of the Army, he cannot afford to overstate his rebukes of his commander-in-chief. He doesn’t have to. Today Bush has little support for his vision and execution of the war outside stalwarts of the Republican Party. Noriega’s chance at winning his race for the Senate depends on cultivating widespread disgust with this administration, even in the GOP bastion of Texas, and convincing voters that Cornyn, in the interest of his own survival, has careened even further than Bush toward extremism and bile. mittee assignments on armed services, the budget, ethics, and the judiciary. Those forums offer a wealth of free exposure on national television. As Bush’s partisan, he has argued like some magisterial, lantern-jawed prelate in the Inquisition. On his home turf, he hasn’t projected the stature of Kay Bailey