HOUSTON — With less than a month remaining until the Texas primary, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in the state is kicking into high gear.
Paid staff has arrived. Her endorsement list is swelling. And on Thursday morning, the campaign opened its first office here amid much fanfare about the outsize role the March 1 primary is expected to play in the Democratic nominating process.
"The Texas primary will matter this time around," state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston declared, pausing for emphasis between the words. "We are here because we are opening up a campaign headquarters. You know why? Because we have a campaign in Texas this go around."
By the campaign's own admission, its formal efforts in Texas got off to a slow start. That has changed in recent weeks, starting with the hiring of its first paid staffer, lead organizer Carlos Paz Jr., then a second one, press secretary Carlos Sanchez.
The office opening Thursday morning doubled as the launch of "Houston for Hillary," a group of prominent Democrats from the city backing Clinton. Already backed by every Democratic member of Texas' congressional delegation from Houston, Clinton added an endorsement Thursday by John Whitmire, to give her the support of all three Democratic state senators from the city.
The state is also receiving increasing public attention from the campaign's high command in Brooklyn. National political director Amanda Renteria came to Austin last month to provide an update on efforts in Texas, admitting that the campaign in the state "hasn’t been an organized effort that has a real infrastructure around it." She is set to return to Texas on Saturday, when supporters are expected to open another office in San Antonio and hold a block walk modeled after one of Clinton's first forays into politics: organizing voters on the city's West Side in the 1970s.
The flurry of official activity comes after months of informal efforts to boost Clinton in the state, a point of contention among some of her Texas backers. The campaign of Clinton's chief Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, has had paid staff in Texas and a headquarters in Austin since November. Over the weekend, Sanders' campaign opened an office in Corpus Christi, where it said a presidential effort has not set up shop since 2008.
On Thursday morning, the trio of Houston lawmakers told reporters they were not worried about the pace of the Clinton campaign in Texas.
"You don't want to peak too soon," Whitmire said. "We've all been in tough campaigns, and it's a process. You had to get through the holidays, and now it's just about good timing to starting focusing on the primaries."
"I think the timing is perfect," said Ellis. "This is a big state. The best way to lose the nomination would be to put all your resources into Texas and ignore Iowa and New Hampshire."
The campaign's emphasis on Texas grows as it looks less likely Clinton will be able to dispatch with Sanders in the first few early voting states. She narrowly defeated him in the Iowa caucuses Monday, and he currently holds wide leads over her in polling in New Hampshire, which has its primary Tuesday.
There were no direct references to Sanders here Thursday morning, but lawmakers alluded to a Democratic nominee other than Clinton — and how it would impact local elections come November.
"She will unite us in the fall like no one else can, and that's important because we're worried and concerned about down-ballot races," Whitmire said. "She will turn Harris County blue — I will guarantee you."
"The county will do a lot better if Hillary is the nominee," state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston told reporters after the event.
Clinton's critics have taken a keen interest in her campaign in Texas, painting its slow start as emblematic of an entitled onetime frontrunner. They pounced again ahead of the office opening Thursday morning, when the Republican National Committee issued a statement saying Clinton "may well regret taking Texans for granted" after a weaker-than-expected showing in Iowa and anticipated loss in New Hampshire.