HOUSTON — Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have come to Texas to lick their wounds and call on old friends when past campaigns were on life support. But for once in this difficult Democratic nomination race against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, she had a reason to celebrate.
The former secretary of state rolled into Texas for a rally at Texas Southern University on Saturday night as outright victor for the first time this primary season, defeating Sanders earlier in the day by a 5.5 point margin in the Nevada presidential caucuses.
Until Saturday night, the campaign was mostly disappointing for the former first lady and U.S. senator. Her Iowa win over Sanders was marginal and he effectively humiliated her two weeks ago in New Hampshire. Her campaign aims to pivot from Nevada into states with friendlier minority populations in the upcoming South Carolina primary and the Super Tuesday states on March 1.
To get the upper hand over Sanders, she must run up the delegate margins in these states. And there is no bigger prize in the coming weeks than Texas. And so on Saturday night, she was emphatic that this was a place she knew well.
"The last time I was here was to honor the late, great Barbara Jordan," she said. "Someone who I was privileged to know and even work with, and to raise the alarm on the Republican assault on voting rights across the United States."
Bill Clinton will campaign on his wife's behalf on Monday in Laredo and Dallas. But so far, her only publicly scheduled stop in the state was this Saturday night rally in Houston. The event showcased the Clinton's deep well of organizational support in the state.
Clinton and her husband's ties to the state date back to the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign when she registered voters as a Democratic National Committee staffer.
"We're going to work hard for the Texas primary," Clinton told the crowd of at least 2,000 supporters.
Mariachi and marching bands, along with a gospel choir warmed up the crowd, and local officials lined up at the microphone to take shots at Sanders on her behalf.
"Recognize that it is a little difficult to be burned. It is hard to be burned," said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, playing on the "Feel the Bern" Sanders campaign motto.
"I can tell you that," she added. "Doesn't feel good."
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and several other speakers made the case that national Clinton supporters are also asserting: that Clinton will have longer coattails for down-ballot candidates than Sanders.
The Democratic members of Congress on the scene — mostly African Americans and Hispanics — are crucial to Clinton's Texas delegate count. Sanders is cutting into her support among white liberals in places like Austin. If Clinton is to win the nomination, these officeholders must help her hold the line in their political backyards; the minority pockets of the state's big cities.
But also, each member of Congress is designated as a "superdelegate," a senior party official who can cast a delegate vote toward the nomination. Nationally and in Texas, Clinton is dominating the superdelegate count.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, a frequently mentioned vice presidential contender for the fall, delivered a well-received speech.
"Houston, we have a solution: Hillary Clinton," he said, invoking the famous line from the movie "Apollo 13."
Beyond presidential politics, local Democratic operatives on the scene noted that U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, was among the elected officials who introduced Clinton. But working the crowd below? Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Green's rival in an increasingly bitter primary fight for Congressional District 29.
Despite the festive mood, Sanders has a track record of closing in on Clinton in the final stretch of these state contests. He's expected to do well in Austin, a college town with a streak of liberalism that fits his brand.
And Sanders loomed from afar. Here at TSU, a historically black college, his campaign flyers were prominent on campus.
Deborah Dedrick is a Houston elementary school teacher who attended the rally. Despite her "love" for Sanders, she said she will vote for Clinton.
"Because I think she has a much better chance, and I think she's incredibly smart and I truly think she would be a much better president."
"He's where my heart is, but she's where my head is," she added.