Mikal Watts spoke to the Young Democrats at UT last night. I’d estimate the audience at around a hundred people. It was one of those semicomical moments in a political campaign when everything goes off the tracks. The event was supposed to start at 8, but the professor who was using the classroom refused to give it up until 8:15. Then Watts was allotted only 20 minutes to speak and answer questions, and the YDs cut him off so that they could transact club business. Amateur hour. Worst of all, the Noriega people were out in force with hostile questions. David Beckwith from the Cornyn campaign was there too, taking it all in.

Watts has a lot of charisma, as you would expect from a seasoned trial lawyer. Your first reaction is that you like the guy. I encountered him outside, in the gaggle of students waiting for the room to empty, and his meet-and-greet style was of someone who has known you for years, as if you are picking up from where you left off in your last conversation. He was dressed casually, no coat or tie, and when he got up to speak, his body language was that of someone who is completely comfortable in his own skin. His most obvious physical feature is that the top of his head is bald, and he cracked a joke about it.

My report is based on my notes, not on a tape recording. The quotation marks represent what I wrote down, not necessarily Watts’ exact words.

“I’m the only Longhorn in this race,” he began, “and that’s the only negative thing [about Noriega] I’m going to say tonight.” He recounted his own UT career: he earned a BA in liberal arts in two years, then a law degree in another two years. I wasn’t sure if that was something students would like to hear. Isn’t that the guy in the class everybody hates?

Then he talked about his career as a lawyer. “I represented people who lost their loves ones, who died because they were driving cars whose fuel tanks exploded when hit from the rear. We got the location of those fuel tanks changed. I represented people whose tires came apart in the Texas heat, and we got the design of those tires changed. I represented people whose Ford Explorers rolled over.”

“I’ve been involved in Democratic politics for twenty years. I want to talk to you tonight about why I’m making this race and why you should get involved. I have no faith that this president of this senator will get us out of Iraq. In 2006, the country overwhelmingly told the president, ‘We want out of Iraq.’ He responded by raising the number of troops. Now they tell us that maybe next summer we’ll get back down to where we were before the surge.

He urged the students to get involved, “whether it’s my race, Rick’s race, Obama’s race.” He told how, “When I was a student, the regents invested in South Africa, which practice apartheid. We protested, right on this mall. South We rallied, we protested, we raised hell, and they changed their policy.”

“Democrats have a historic opportunity. Victory means the chance to have universal health care. Victory means we can change the ridiculous unfunded mandate called No Child Left Behind. All depends upon victory. “

All of us, whether it’s money, marbles, or chalk, you have to get involved. We have an historic opportunity to change the course of the country. I’ll take John Cornyn on and together we’ll take him out of the United States Senate. “

Then he opened the floor to questions. The first was, “Do you support a woman’s right to choose?” Watts answered, “Let me tell you my position. I’m against abortion except in cases of incest, rape, and health of the mother. But the Republicans have it all wrong. They have defunded organizations like Planned Parenthood that try to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Ninety-six percent of what they do has nothing to do with abortion. We live in a state that is number one in uninsured kids, in uninsured women. I disagree strenuously on stem cell research. President Bush stopped the research, and last year he vetoed an attempt to restore it.”

Next question: “I read in the Houston Chronicle that you paid off judges.” This was a reference to a story about a letter Watts wrote to a lawyer on the opposite side of a case in which he mentioned how much he had contributed to judges on the 13th Court of Appeals (see post, 9/5, “Don’t Put It in Writing”). It was interesting to see the trial lawyer on the witness stand, as it were. Watts made no attempt to answer the question. “The people we are up against will Swift Boat you all day long,” he said. “I don’t care what they say about me. I can take those blows. I can fight back.” Then he talked about Cornyn coming to Texas with Karl Rove. “When Dick Cheney came to Texas, he brought a shotgun. When John Cornyn came, he brought a snake.”

Next question: “Do you support gay marriage?” Once again Watts began with a dilatory comment about explaining his position. Then: “Personally, I don’t support gay marriage. I do support civil unions. I support providing protection to gays against discrimination. I believe that gay people deserve the same rights as all Americans.” Then he went off against Cornyn: “I think John Cornyn has taken Texas out of a Senate seat. Your United States senator has wasted five years about the priorities of Texas, about children’s health care. Less than 48 hours after the assassination of the wife of a federal judge, he went on the floor of the Senate to justify it.”

The final question was, “Do you support immediate withdrawal from Iraq or phased withdrawal?” Watts’ answer was along the lines that Iraq was the wrong war and segued into Afghanistan: “We have given up the fight against terror. In Afghanistan the growing of poppies, which is used to make you-know-what, is up 56%. The Taliban is growing stronger.” At that point, he was informed that his time was up.

My assessment is that Watts’ talk struck the wrong note. I think he should have tried to fire up the crowd by attacking Cornyn from start to finish. On the other hand, maybe he knew he had an unfriendly jury, that most YDs are probably going to be for Noriega.

The most interesting thing about the evening was Watts’ position on the social issues, abortion and gay marriage, and the hostility it generated from the mostly white audience. My initial reaction was that the social issues are going to hurt him in a Democratic primary. On reflection, I’m not so sure about that. They’ll hurt him with white liberals, all right, and that description fit most of the YDs in attendance. But many Hispanics are against abortion, because of their Catholic faith, and neither Hispanics nor blacks view gay marriage favorably. The question is whether Watts can get Hispanic voters to look beyond Noriega’s surname to the two candidates’ stands on these issues. Watts’ strategy in the race is clearly to split Noriega’s Hispanic base by using his South Texas connections forged by many years of political contributions. I think it’s possible to split it. I have observed in the Legislature the tension between the South Texas Hispanics and the big-city Hispanics. The intensity of politics is greater in South Texas than it is in the big cities. The Democratic primary may well come down to a Houston/Dallas versus San Antonio/Valley fight for the Hispanic vote.