AUSTIN, Texas -- Barack Obama said Saturday he is helping to spark an awakening among moribund Texas Democrats, who are now turning out to vote early in record numbers and could all but hand him his party's presidential nomination on March 4.
"I think the patient may be starting to get out of bed, because we've been seeing just enormous excitement as we've traveled across Texas,'' the Democratic front-runner said in an exclusive interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I think people are very energized by the prospect of bringing the Bush era to a close and bringing the country together.''
Obama said that his campaign could re-energize Democrats in states like Texas, where collapse is almost a charitable description for what's happened to Lyndon Johnson's party in recent years.
It was on Bush's watch, first as Texas governor and then president, that the once-dominant Democrats finally cratered, losing every statewide office and the presiding officers of the state House and Senate.
Obama's campaign has suggested that Republicans aren't the only ones at fault for the Democrats' decline. A recent Obama advertisement mailed out to voters in Alaska and perhaps elsewhere carried this headline: "8 years of the Clintons, major losses for Democrats across the nation.'' The mail piece said the Democrats lost 12 governors, seven senators and 46 congressmen during the Clinton White House years.
In the interview, Obama sidestepped the question of who's to blame but made it clear that he can pump up voters about the Democratic Party - including in Republican-leaning "red states" - in a way that rival Hillary Clinton can't.
The Obama campaign has consistently portrayed Hillary Clinton as a polarizing figure who has turned off voters with overtly partisan rhetoric and gamesmanship.
"Unless you're building from the ground up and broadening the appeal of the party to independents and even some disaffected Republicans . . . we're not going to be able to get things done,'' he said. "I think we have been able to get folks in every state that we've campaigned in to take a second look at the Democratic Party.''
A Clinton aide said the New York senator is energizing voters in the Lone Star State herself.
Meanwhile, Obama acknowledged that in a state like Texas, which has heavy concentrations of uniformed men and women, he must continue to work on dispelling the notion that he falls short in the patriotism department. Some conservative critics have chided him, for example, for not wearing an American flag pin on his lapel.
But the senator also faces an e-mail hoax, carrying false claims that he is a radical Muslim and refuses to say the pledge of allegiance. Obama is a Christian and, as shown on C-Span, sometimes leads the U.S. Senate in the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag. Still, the email keeps bounce around the Internet.
"It typically is based on this scurrilous e-mail that's been going around, which is completely false,'' he said. "I am not a Muslim and never have been. I've been going to the same church for the last 20 years I was sworn in on my family Bible. And I have been pledging allegiance since I was three.''
Obama said it was "important for us to dispel'' the doubts.
"Nobody said politics is fair,'' he added. "These are just the kinds of, I think, dirty tricks that you see crop up periodically.''
Whatever conservatives may think of him, it's clear that the Clinton-Obama showdown is pumping up Democrats like never before in the modern era.
"This presidential primary is bringing a flow of turnout to our side like we've never seen before," said Democratic strategist Ed Martin, showing off a spreadsheet showing a five-fold of early vote turnout in the state's most populous counties since early voting for the March 4 primary began on Tuesday.
In reliably Republican Tarrant County, for example, Democratic turnout topped 18,000 in the first three days of early voting - compared with just 2,300 at the same point in 2004.
Clinton spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said the former first lady, who has deep Texas ties, is generating her share of the interest. "Texans know that Senator Clinton will roll up her sleeves and work hard for them every day, which is why she's been attracted huge crowds at early vote rallies throughout the state, and record numbers of Texans are coming out to vote," Elrod said.
But Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said while both candidates are generating interest, "it's Obama that's really providing the jet fuel to this thing.''
"What Obama is offering is not more of the same,'' Jillson said. "He is offering a new style of politics.''
(John Moritz of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.)