WHO IS SAYING THOSE NASTY things about Speaker Pete Laney and several of his key lieutenants, all of whom represent conservative-leaning districts? They certainly would like to know. Here’s their version of the story. In each of their districts, including Laney’s, north of Lubbock, a telephone poll was conducted that started out innocently enough. The caller asked respondents how they felt about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and issues like term limits. Then: Do you know who your state representative is? (If not, the caller informed them.) Then: Do you know that Representative So-and-So favors gay rights and is against parental rights? In Laney’s district, the questions included, Do you know that your state representative has served 22 years? Don’t you think it’s time for a change?

All of the Democrats learned about the poll (which might be good political ammunition but is definitely not good polling technique) secondhand from friendly constituents who had been called. The legislators started swapping stories and found out that the same thing had been happening in swing districts around the state: San Angelo, Athens, Huntsville, Galveston. But who was behind it—a fringe group or the state Republican party, which has vowed to make an all-out effort to capture a majority in the House this year?

Tom Pauken, the GOP state chairman, demurs. Yes, he says, the party has been polling in Democrat-held districts that he believes a Republican could win. Yes, the poll includes inquiries about Clinton, Bush, term limits, taxes and spending, education law, the lottery, and abortion. What about gay rights? “It doesn’t jump out at me as a question,” Pauken says. “That doesn’t sound like a question we would ask, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t on some of the polls.” Pauken also says that contrary to reports in Texas Monthly (Politics: “Right, but Wrong,” May 1995), the GOP hasn’t targeted Laney. But the party is polling his district, and says Pauken, “I’ll help his opponent, Hollis Cain.”

Poor Phil

THE GRAMM WATCH IS GRIM. THE latest bad news for Phil Gramm’s bid to capture the Republican presidential nomination came in the area of fundraising, supposedly his greatest strength. GOP front-runner Bob Dole qualified for $9.2 million in federal matching funds in the January payout, while Gramm qualified to receive $6.6 million. (Pat Buchanan was third among the GOP contenders with just under $4 million; newcomer Steve Forbes is spending his own money, of which there is plenty, and doesn’t qualify for matching funds.) To make matters worse for Gramm, the federal pot was so empty that the candidates actually received only about 60 percent of the money due them and will have to wait for 1995 income tax payments to come in to receive the rest. That may be too late. Gramm’s strategy for beating Dole calls for him to finish second in this month’s Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, but right now he is trailing not only Dole but also Forbes in both states. The latest poll from New Hampshire at press time showed Dole with the support of 42 percent of likely Republican voters, up from 30 in early December, with Forbes at 11, Buchanan at 10, and Gramm running fourth at 9. Forbes’s climb was the direct result of a December TV ad campaign that hammered at Gramm for helping to “engineer a staggering $100 billion tax increase in 1990.” (The charge is unfair, in case that matters anymore in American politics: Gramm supported a preliminary plan that included tax increases and spending cuts but voted against a very different final version.) The Gramm campaign was forced to respond with its own ad, but by doing so it had to spend money at the wrong time on the wrong message against the wrong opponent. One silver lining: Forbes’s rise to second place in Iowa, also the result of heavy advertising, may be an illusion. Iowa is a caucus state, and Forbes doesn’t have an organization to turn out supporters at the precinct level.

Help Wanted

SEEKING NON-PARTISAN DEMOCRAT or Republican, extremely knowledgeable about the Legislature, who gets along with Bob Bullock and Pete Laney. Apply to Governor George W. Bush. The recent resignation of legislative director Dan Shelley, following the earlier departures of aides Cliff Johnson and Reggie Bashur, means that the governor has lost the three-member staff that guided his legislative program to a triumphant conclusion last session. The topic of who should handle Bush’s program for the 1997 session has his office in a tizzy. You’d think there would be a wealth of candidates for the job, but the trouble is, everyone who has the qualifications is already making big bucks as a lobbyist—as Johnson and Bashur, and possibly Shelley, hope to do.