LAST SUMMER, when Dallas congressman Jim Collins started sounding serious about the Senate, many people wrote him off as an impossible dreamer. Lloyd Bentsen is formidable, they reasoned. Bentsen beat some heavy hitters like Ralph Yarborough and George Bush in 1970, and he made Alan Steelman look naive for even trying to take him on in 1976.

Bentsen may have stumbled badly trying to run for president that same year, but he lost no time re-establishing himself as a strong man of the Senate. Actually, his strategic thinking about the race for the White House hadn’t been so wrong: After the McGovern debacle of 1972, exacerbated by festering memories of Chicago in ’68, the Democratic Party was ready to return to the middle ground. Bentsen might have been a logical choice, but it was a year of astonishing illogic: The Democrats chose Jimmy Carter, or rather he chose them and locked them in an early, unhappy, inexorable embrace, papered over with Sunday-school smiles and homilies about “a government as good as the American people.” Bentsen was among the best of the American people, a product of South Texas savvy, Houston sophistication and Washington experience. Bentsen had the respect of his colleagues and the support of his constituents. Jim Collins would be crazy to go against him.

But Collins is not crazy, and challenge Bentsen he did. He had wanted to run for statewide office for some time, and had considered the governor’s mansion before Bill Clements came along. At 66, this was as good a time as any to make the big try, and he sensed vulnerability in Bentsen’s balancing act between national liberal Democrats and conservative Texans.

Then, too, there was pressure within the party to open up Collins’ 3rd Congressional District to younger candidates such as Steve Bartlett, a Collins supporter in past campaigns who won the Republican primary in May and is all but packed and ready to move to Washington in January. That’s how Republican the 3rd District is. That’s how strong Collins is. He is virtually unbeatable on his own Northwest Dallas turf.

It was not always so. When Jim Collins first ran for Congress in 1966, the race covered half of Dallas County, which was still a lot more Democratic than Republi-can. Nobody knew how to take Collins. Even his friends were skeptical. This son of the indomitable Carr Collins, who built Fidelity Union Life Insurance Company, seemed an unlikely prospect for the rough and seamy world of LBJ’s Washington. Jim Collins seemed unrealistically fervent in his drive to convert Democratic friends to the Republican party. Why should they give up being on the inside of Johnson’s President’s Club-$l,000 to join-to stand out in the cold with Barry Gold-water’s GOP? He was so set in his conservative ways that many suspected his hard-edged principles would cost Dallas needed federal dollars, just as former congressman Bruce Alger’s had. He was too enthusiastically ingenuous in an age when Bob Strauss’ skilled and knowing star was beginning to rise.

Jim Collins lost to Joe Poole, a Democratic congressman of the old school. Those slick TV commercials of Collins in the supermarket, at the construction site, on the sidewalk, with his coat slung over his shoulder, insisting that he understood, had been catchy, the pros said, but were too clever for the low-down politics of Congress.

But the voters noticed, and they remembered. Collins knew they would. When he conceded to Joe Poole on election night, he was no weary, defeated candidate. His energy was high, as if he had stored up so much during those years in the insurance business that he would never find a way to expend it all. He made it clear that he would keep on running. And he did. When Joe Poole died approximately a year later, Jim Collins ran again and won. He has been running and winning ever since.

Collins hasn’t been closely associated with any legislative program in Congress, unless it’s anti-busing. He hasn’t adopted the economy as his issue the way Bentsen has. Generally, he has voted his conservative convictions, and now the times have caught up with Collins. Most of his old Democratic friends have long since converted to the GOP, and snappy TV commercials are commonplace for political candidates. Collins looks a lot more right today on many fronts than he did when he got started in politics more than 15 years ago.

So far the Senate run has been uphill for Collins. He’s having a hard time making the “liberal” label stick to Lloyd Bentsen, who’s well-known and highly regarded in the business community. To win, Collins has to sweep Dallas County and run extremely well in Houston, Bentsen’s hometown. Midland-Odessa usually delivers for Republican candidates. Given Dallas, Houston and West Texas – and Houston is far from a given for Collins – the margin of victory usually lies in small-town Texas, where Bill Clements campaigned all summer in 1978 and is doing the same thing this year. It’s critical to cut into the rural, brass-collar Democratic vote, and Collins will have to score heavily here to offset Bentsen’s likely success in Houston, San Antonio and South Texas.

Smart money is still betting on Bentsento keep his Senate seat. Incumbency helps,and the current economy can’t hurt. Allthe same, it would be a great mistake tocount out Jim Collins. He’s at the top ofthe strongest Republican ticket in Texashistory. Governor Clements is well-organized and will spend whatever it takes towin reelection. Collins is famous for hisgrass-roots technique, and he’s a tough,indefatigable campaigner. He too is in aposition to spend lavishly on the race. Collins has surprised the skeptics before. Onlya fool would underestimate him. AndLloyd Bentsen is no fool.


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