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Craig James Starts Late, Behind the Competition

Craig James, a political newcomer and sports personality, is trying to get a toehold in an already crowded field competing for Kay Bailey Hutchison's U.S. Senate seat.

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If Craig James is the answer, what was the question?

The newest candidate in the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is an ESPN analyst and a former running back for Southern Methodist University and several professional teams, including the New England Patriots.

He’s never been in politics before, or run for office. Now he’s running for a relatively rare opening for a Texas seat in the Senate, one of 10 Republicans seeking the party’s nomination.

James got in late. The field is crowded. There is a candidate in the race — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — who already has all the money he needs to buy the amount of advertising it takes to get himself and his views in front of the voters.

That’s a lot of money, by the way, especially if you have to gather it in $2,500 chunks. It takes roughly 600 donors giving that federally allowed maximum amount to pay for just one week of statewide television ads in Texas, and that’s using a low-ball estimate of the weekly burn rate.

The range of presentable Republican candidates — ignore the nuts and the performance artists — ranges from moderate to quite conservative. Voters of every ideological bent in the Republican Party already have at least one candidate who is more or less in sync with their views.

Dallas has a candidate. Houston has two. Many of the party stalwarts, the conservative political action committees, and social and fiscal conservative interest groups have already endorsed a candidate.

It’s difficult to find a toehold here. The money is locked up. The endorsements are mostly gone. The ideological groups each have a comfortable place to land.

Two fairly well-known conservatives — Roger Williams and Michael Williams — already gave up and dropped out of the race. Michael Williams, a former Texas railroad commissioner, frankly said that it was almost impossible to raise money for the race in the shadow of Dewhurst. Dewhurst’s competitors are asking donors to bet against an established Republican vote-getter who has the personal money to finance his own campaign if need be and who, if he loses, will still be the lieutenant governor for the next two years. It’s a sucker’s bet — want to be a friend or an enemy of a sitting senator or lieutenant governor?

Former Mayor Tom Leppert of Dallas can self-finance, at least to some extent, and he had matched Dewhurst dollar for dollar through the September campaign finance reports (fresh ones get filed this month). He’s also been on the ballot before and has a resume that includes public service.

Ted Cruz, the state’s former solicitor general under Attorney General Greg Abbott, is trying to counter money with grassroots conservatives. He’s been running a ground war, hoping to turn his organization into an effective foil to the opposition’s money. He and Dewhurst have split the endorsements from conservatives. Whatever that means for those two, it doesn’t leave many crumbs for a fresh candidate.

James is new. He’s more fame-ish than famous, and he’ll need some advertising to tell voters who he is and what he wants to do. Former professional athletes have been elected here and there around the U.S. — Jack Kemp, Jim Bunning and Bill Bradley are examples — but even in sports-crazy Texas, it’s not the norm. Some kick the tires, as Roger Staubach and Nolan Ryan did. Mostly, though, they don’t run.

James has been talking about this run for a while. His name surfaced last year, after Hutchison announced she wouldn’t seek another term, and with no new developments or campaign books or exploratory tours — the regular run-up to a campaign, in other words — the talk died down.

Then, on Dec. 19 — the last day for candidates to file with the parties to run this year — he was back.

The federal courts gave him an unexpected gift — delaying the March 6 primaries until April 3, and perhaps later, as a result of redistricting litigation. That gives him more time to raise money, zip around the state talking to civic groups and such, and try to outrun a group of more experienced candidates who have a head start.

All he has to do now is answer that question.

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