WASHINGTON — Democrats appear to have recruited retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to run for the U.S. Senate in Texas, setting the stage for a potentially competitive race in 2012 for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes confirmed that Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the head of the Democratic Senate campaign committee, was referring to Sanchez Thursday when she said that Democrats were very close to announcing a candidate in Texas.
Sanchez, reached by phone at his San Antonio home, said, "I can neither confirm nor deny."
While Sanchez, the former top military commander in Iraq who was forced out by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, wouldn't speak about the Senate race, he did discuss his career and political philosophy.
"I would describe myself as during my military career as supporting the president and the Constitution," Sanchez said. "After the military, I decided that socially, I'm a progressive, a fiscal conservative and a strong supporter, obviously, of national defense."
Sanchez, a Rio Grande City native, said that he was shaped by his upbringing.
"It's my views and my history, having grown up in south Texas, depending on social programs and assistance, that America has a responsibility to its people," he said.
Barnes, one of the state's last high-profile Democrats, said, "I talked to him. It sounded to me like he's close to being a candidate."
"He's got a very compelling story," Barnes added. "He's the one guy who could unite the Hispanic vote. He'll get the conservative Hispanic businessman."
There is, however, the hangover from the year he spent as U.S. commander in Iraq, in 2003 and 2004.
Asked if the Abu Ghraib scandal — where U.S. military personnel and contractors humiliated prisoners in photos seen around the world — had effectively terminated his military career, Sanchez said, "That's pretty fair." He retired in 2006.
Sanchez emphasized that he hadn't known or had anything to do with the actions at the prison and was cleared by Army investigators. His 2008 book, "Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story," was critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war. In the interview, he said that President George W. Bush "at times asked the right questions, but didn't impose his will."
Until now, all the attention in the U.S. Senate race has been on the Republicans' multitude of potential candidates, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and Houston lawyer Ted Cruz.
Barnes is eager for the Democrats to make it competitive, especially with Texas' growing Hispanic population.
"It's the one candidate that will cause John Cornyn some heartburn," he said of the Texas senator who heads the Republicans' Senate campaign committee.
Reps. Henry Cuellar and Charlie Gonzalez, both Hispanic Democrats, said they welcomed Sanchez's likely entry into the race.
"I think he will be a very viable candidate," Cuellar said. "He's got the background. Texas is about ripe to start shifting into the blue area."
Gonzalez said, "His heart is in public service." But he said that "it's really tough" for a Democrat in Texas to raise money, although he was waiting "to see what the climate is" in 2012.
"The changing demographics are there, but you still have to get people to register and turn out on Election Day," Gonzalez said.
After Murray's surprise announcement that Texas was one of "Six in '12" states Democrats were targeting in 2012, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said, "Republicans can only hope that national Democrats are going to waste their money in the state of Texas. We look forward to their mystery candidate."
ABOUT RICARDO SANCHEZ
Retired Lieutenant General, U.S. Army
Born: Rio Grande City, Texas
Residence: San Antonio
Education: one year, University of Texas, Austin, on ROTC scholarship
Graduated University of Texas A&I University (now known as Texas A&M, Kingville) 1973
Career: U.S. Army, 1973-2006.
Business consultant, speaker.
Author: "Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story," 2008.
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