Their 3 Minutes of Fame

Posted September 7, 2004 at 6:13pm

NEW YORK — A speaking slot at the Republican National Convention was too good a chance for aspiring House candidates to pass up. But few stayed to enjoy the full week of revelry, choosing instead to head back to the campaign trail in their home states.

Due to the unusually late date of the GOP’s convention, a number of both top-tier and long-shot candidates either skipped a visit to New York entirely or stayed for a short period before returning to their home districts.

Former Texas Public Utility Commissioner Becky Armendariz Klein (R) is a case in point.

The challenger to Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) in the 25th district, Klein returned home shortly after addressing the delegates Monday afternoon.

“I thought it was important [to speak at the convention] because it is a strong indicator that leadership and the White House are very supportive of my campaign,” she said. “But I thought it was a wise use of my time to go back to my district and continue campaigning.”

Both Clinton LeSueur, who is challenging Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), and Corey Hoze, who is running in the open-seat race to replace 10-term Rep. Jerry Kleczka (D-Wis.), also decided to stay only a day or two in New York, fearing that they could lose a step if they remained out of the district for too long.

“I knew I couldn’t stay” for the whole week, said Hoze, who had special worries because he is competing in a GOP primary on Sept. 14. “It would have been too expensive, and would have prevented me from being on the campaign trail. But this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

One candidate who did decide to stay the whole week was Tim Escobar, a Republican who is seeking a rematch with Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.).

As a California delegate, Escobar had less flexibility than other candidates to leave early. But he, too, made the most of his time away from the campaign trail, trying — among other things — to leverage the high-profile speech by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

“This convention, especially with the appearance of Governor Schwarzenegger, reminds people that a real opposition exists in California,” Escobar said in a floor interview on the last night of the convention. “California is not a lockstep Democratic state any longer.”

Escobar also saw the convention as an opportunity to improve his fundraising base. In New York, he met with representatives of the Financial Services Roundtable, as well as the aerospace and construction industries.

“Several Members from various states introduced me to people I need to meet with to continue to fight against leftist ideology,” Escobar said. “My opponent is well financed. This week was about raising resources. I talked to people I couldn’t physically see eye to eye” back in the district.

Klein said she was surprised by the “enormous response” she received following her brief address, but added that it had not drastically increased donations to her campaign.

Unlike most long-shot candidates, Klein has received significant support from donors based in Washington, D.C. Through June 30, she had received $110,000 in contributions from political action committees.

That may be the result of rumors that she is a leading candidate to head the Federal Communications Commission if President Bush is elected to a second term this fall.

Klein served in the first Bush administration and was a senior policy adviser to Bush when he was governor of Texas.

For Klein, as well as others involved in races that do not fall into the top tier of most hotly contested races, a convention address afforded a national stage that otherwise would not be available.

LeSueur is one who reaped a publicity windfall. In 2002, as a first-time candidate, LeSueur won an unexpectedly strong 43 percent of the vote against Thompson, a five-term Member whose war chest was six times as big.

For LeSueur, the convention was mostly about exposure. Not only did his brief speech air nationally on C-SPAN (though out of prime time) but three Mississippi newspapers also ran full stories on his candidacy the day after his address.

“I think we have shown the people of the 2nd Congressional district that we’re able to represent them well on the grassroots level, earning votes by going door to door and attending church meetings,” he said. “But what the convention speech did for me is to show people that I can also represent them on the national level.”

As soon as he left the stage Monday, LeSueur “received a ton of calls from people all over the district, saying how proud they were of me. It lets me know people are not just voting against Bennie Thompson.”

Hoze, who also is black, attracted significant media attention in his Milwaukee-based district.

“It’s amazing how many people saw the speech on the different news telecasts,” Hoze said. “I only did two television interviews, but my speech was picked up by all four major stations, plus it got a couple of print stories in the local paper. As far as media exposure goes, it was definitely worth it.”

The flip side for the national party is that speeches by LeSueur, Hoze, Klein and Escobar — candidates who are deemed long shots at best — offered the GOP a chance to showcase its diversity.

Klein, who is Latina, acknowledged this fact, noting that her speaking slot is “an indicator of the fact that my district is 70 percent Hispanic and there is wide recognition that the Hispanic vote has come of age.”

Another example of diversity was businessman Antonio Davis-Fairman (R), who is running a quixotic bid against Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) in the Chicago-area 7th district.

Davis-Fairman called the speech “beneficial” to his campaign but acknowledged that the “first time around it’s pretty tough to come in and knock out an incumbent.”

Davis was first elected in 1996 in a district where roughly two-thirds of the residents are black.

Then-Vice President Al Gore won 83 percent in the 7th district in the 2000 presidential race — the same percentage Davis received two years later.

Nonetheless, Davis-Fairman said speaking at the convention was “a great opportunity … to be part of history.”

LeSueur saw the convention as a chance to build a minority base within the GOP. He said he was pleased to be able to network with national black leaders in the GOP such as Education Secretary Rod Paige and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.

And he found that even a short stay by a candidate can garner goodwill among Republican insiders.

“People think it’s wonderful that Clinton came up here,” said Clark Reed, a Mississippi delegate and former state party chairman. “It made a big impact in Mississippi. We’re a state that’s still not accustomed to being in the forefront of American politics.”