ON FEBRUARY 18, U.S. SENATOR Phil Gramm met with twenty-two independent oilmen—including heavyweights Clayton Williams and H. L. “Sonny” Brown—at the Petroleum Club in Midland. The topic was what the federal government should do to help their slumping industry, and what they heard was the rhetorical equivalent of a dry hole. Although the oilmen pushed for an import fee, Gramm insisted that the free market would take care of everything. “That flies in the face of what we need,” grumbles oilman Bob Landreth. The hole got even drier a month later when a smaller group went to Washington, D.C. Instead of seeing the senator himself, they were shuttled in to meet with a junior aide who “knew nothing about oil and gas,” says Landreth. “It was a complete waste of time.”

Gramm spokesman Larry Neal reaffirms his boss’ support for oil and gas and insists that the D.C. meeting was “always supposed to be with staff.” But whatever the case, the fallout is clear. Many of the independents—all Republicans—are having second thoughts about supporting Gramm again. “It’s a debatable issue,” says oilman Deane Stoltz. What about backing a Democrat? “I would certainly look hard at an alternative,” Landreth says.

More than three years before he is up for reelection, Phil Gramm’s future is uncertain. Not to him, apparently: “No politician is going to announce several election cycles in advance, but let me make it clear that he’s going to run again,” Neal insists. Yet the eroding of his West Texas base gives life to the rumors out of Austin and Washington that he’s not going to seek a fourth six-year term. “He told a mutual friend that he didn’t want to do it,” says a top aide to one member of the Texas congressional delegation. “The ’96 presidential race [in which he famously flopped] took the wind out of his sails.”

You can imagine the voices inside his head.

Go: By 2002, I’ll be 60, and I’ll have been in Washington for 24 years.

Stay: But I’m finally chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

Go: And that’s the most I’m ever going to be. Remember John Tower? When he finally became chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he got bored and quit the Senate four years later.

Stay: But a Texas Republican could be president.

Go: A Texas Republican who isn’t me. And I’m already not even remotely the most popular Texan in Washington.

Ah, yes: Kay Bailey Hutchison. Texas’ junior-in-name-only senator is the subject of rumors of her own. Though she’s often mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate some day, in the nearer term she’s said to be running for governor in 2002. That would pit her against Rick Perry, who would then be, depending on George W. Bush’s fate, either the outgoing lieutenant governor or the incumbent governor. If Gramm decides against a reelection bid, the theory goes, Perry—presumed to be a major underdog in a race against Hutchison—could save face by running for the Senate.

As payback for preventing a parricidal primary, a GOP president might reward Gramm with the thing he is said to covet: a seat on the Federal Reserve Board. And if not? Well, there’s always the Hill Country. Last September, Gramm and his wife, Wendy, quietly bought 844.99 acres, mostly in Medina County. “They had been looking for several years,” Neal says. “It’s a recreational property.” Maybe. But even if it isn’t Sun City, it’s at least the kind of place a retiree could call home.