THE wild card in the special election to replace Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) could be United We Stand, America (UWSA), the grass-roots, anti-deficit organization spawned by Ross Perot's independent presidential candidacy.
Today, President-elect Clinton was expected to name Senator Bentsen to the post of Treasury secretary. To fill Bentsen's Senate term, which expires in 1994, Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) will call a special election next year. UWSA's role in Georgia runoff
UWSA already showed its strength by helping Georgia Republican Paul Coverdell win a tight senatorial runoff election last month against incumbent Wyche Fowler (D), spokesmen for both candidates and UWSA's Georgia operation say. There are no exit polls or other data, however, to confirm this claim, they admit.
Mr. Perot garnered 300,000 votes (13 percent) in Georgia, many times the number needed to swing the senatorial runoff to Mr. Coverdell, who ended up winning by 15,000 votes. In Texas, Perot won 1.35 million votes (22 percent), making UWSA potentially an even more powerful bloc in this state's upcoming race.
Special elections to fill other seats in Congress vacated by Mr. Clinton's appointees will provide more opportunities for UWSA, says Ken Kendrick, UWSA's Georgia coordinator.
UWSA is currently in the process of transforming itself from Perot's campaign organization to a nonprofit advocacy group. It will begin a membership drive on Jan. 4.
The decision to take nonprofit status is a change in direction from the organization's earlier thinking, and will mean that it cannot endorse candidates, Mr. Kendrick says. Nor did UWSA endorse Coverdell, he explains.
The group did send a clear signal by mailing postcards to 90,000 Perot volunteers and petition-signers, however, informing them that Coverdell had taken the "Lead ... or Leave" pledge and Senator Fowler had not, Kendrick says.
Lead ... or Leave is a Washington organization promoted by former Sens. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire. It asks candidates to sign a pledge to reduce the federal deficit by half within four years or refuse to seek reelection.
Perot and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Andre Marrou signed the pledge. So did 11 major party candidates for the Senate and 95 for the House of Representatives. Pledge-takers won four Senate seats and 12 House seats.
After talking last summer to Lead ... or Leave, UWSA actively promoted the pledge in Georgia, Kendrick says. Had both Coverdell and Fowler signed it, he says, UWSA would have "declared victory." Had neither signed it, UWSA would have "stayed home" on election day.
As it was, the pledge gave direction to "300,000 Perot voters looking for a place to go," Coverdell spokesman William Crane says.
Jon Cowan, who co-founded Lead ... or Leave last summer, says the pledge and UWSA's publicity effort were "critical" to Coverdell's victory. Noting his organization's close cooperation with UWSA in that race, he says, "we will absolutely weigh in" on the special election in Texas by seeking pledges from the candidates.
But Jim Serur, Texas coordinator for UWSA, said that the group had received no direction yet on the stand it will take during the Texas election. Democrats fear losing Bentsen's seat
Meanwhile, Governor Richards plans to appoint a Democrat to serve as interim senator - one who, she says, can win the special election. Phil Gramm (R) is the state's other senator, and the Democrats fear losing Bentsen's seat as well.
"Basically, this is a Republican state by about a percent, a percent and a half," says Fred Meyer, Texas Republican Party chairman.
He explains that Texans tend to vote Republican at the national level and Democratic at the local level.
Mr. Meyer names Kay Hutchison as a Republican who would make an effective candidate because of her campaign organization and ability to raise money. In 1990, she became the first female Republican elected to statewide office when she won the race for state treasurer with 52 percent.
Richards's list of potential appointees includes former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, State Comptroller John Sharp, and former Lt. Gov. William Hobby.
She could even appoint herself, but others say she does not want the job. Mr. Sharp, the only one of her potential appointees who is currently active in state politics, won his job with 63 percent of the vote in 1990.