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In Texas, a showdown at the GOP corral

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's tactics against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in his state's Republican primary probably foretell other Republican campaigns in 2010.
Image: Gov. Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks about border security during a news conference in September in Houston.David J. Phillip / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Rick Perry, the state's swashbuckling Republican governor, says his opponent spends tax dollars too freely. She's too liberal. She's too Washington. She doesn't get what he calls "Texas values."

One might imagine Perry's opponent to be a Democrat, but she is Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican born, bred and elected, serving her third term casting reliably conservative votes as a U.S. senator.

Hutchison's decision to chase her long-held dream of becoming governor, and Perry's refusal to yield, have created a messy battle for Republican votes in a state where GOP primaries were generally considered tea parties in the era before "tea party" took on a different meaning.

Perry is leading in the polls as Hutchison, often pinned in Washington because of the health-care debate, struggles to find a clear message and a compelling purpose for her campaign. With the primary scheduled March 2, she has money and history but only about 11 weeks to make her case.

Observers say Hutchison, 66, hurt her cause by promising to step down from the Senate to devote herself to the gubernatorial campaign this fall, then changing her mind. Although her staff says she stayed to do the state's business on Capitol Hill, even some supporters suspect she is hedging her bets.

"You'd have to say he's hit his stride and clarified his message, and she's still casting around and trying to define herself," said Bruce Buchanan, a politics professor at the University of Texas, where an October poll in conjunction with the Texas Tribune showed Perry with a 12-point lead in a race that Hutchison once led by more.

Perry's campaign tactics probably foretell other Republican campaigns in 2010, with attacks on ballooning federal spending and Democratic legislative projects from health care to the energy policy known as "cap-and-trade."

"Washington's one-size-fits-all approaches simply don't work," Perry, 59, told an audience here last week. "They want more control of your dollars and your life, and they want it now. We surrender that to them with peril."

Echoing a wider GOP split
In some respects, the fight in Texas echoes the party's split nationally, as Perry carries the banner for unbending social conservatism while Hutchison offers more nuanced positions on abortion and supports embryonic stem cell research. She says Republicans must expand their tent, Ronald Reagan-like.

Yet that story line is complicated by Hutchison's own push to win support from social conservatives and party activists who typically dominate the Republican primary. She welcomed an appearance with former vice president Richard B. Cheney, a darling of many conservatives, and she trumpets Cheney's endorsement in a television ad.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, speaks at the Texas Federation of Republican Women Biennial Convention in November.Sharon Steinmann / FR170052 AP

Perry, who has little use for former Bush administration principals -- and vice versa -- was critical of Hutchison in an interview Thursday, dismissing Cheney as a symbol of her sources of support: "I'm pretty much Texas-centric. She, on the other hand, goes to Washington. I've got one out-of-stater I can think of: Sarah Palin."

Asked what Palin's backing contributes, Perry answered, "Oh my God. Sarah, number one, is a longtime friend, both personal and professional. I greatly admire her. I think she is a principled, serious conservative that is wildly popular in a lot of different circles. I'll take that."

Whichever Republican wins the primary -- another candidate is Debra Medina, a supporter of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) -- is all but assured of facing Houston Mayor Bill White in November. White, a popular, policy-oriented Democrat reelected in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote, entered the race Dec. 4.

Baiting Democrats
Hutchison declared her candidacy in December 2008 and immediately became the favorite to win the primary and the November 2010 election -- no Democrat has been elected governor since Ann Richards in 1990. But it is Perry who has increasingly set the terms of the debate.

The longest-serving governor in Texas history, Perry finished George W. Bush's second term, beginning in December 2000, and he won twice on his own. He cultivates a rugged, bluff image. The other day, he made his political rounds in a dark suit over French cuffs and a red, white and blue tie, complemented by cowboy boots.

Perry delights in baiting Democrats, once charging that President Obama is "hellbent on taking America toward a socialist country." A former Democrat who led Al Gore's 1988 primary campaign in Texas, he declared Rush Limbaugh an honorary Texan and mused about secession in a Confederate state where pride and suspicion run deep.

After an anti-tax tea party rally on the state capitol grounds -- where a 1901 Civil War memorial honors Confederates who "died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution" -- Perry told a reporter: "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb its nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come of that?"

A few days earlier, Perry created a stir by endorsing a legislative resolution claiming sovereignty under the 10th Amendment "over all powers" not granted to the federal government in the Constitution.

Hutchinson’s approach
Hutchison sees an opening in Perry's bombast. She is also mindful that his statewide approval rating is below 50 percent and that he collected only 39 percent of the vote in a four-way race in 2006. Her posters declare "Kay -- Because Texas Can Do Better."

"For him to label me as inside Washington, it's just a fabrication. It's insulting because I'm fighting so hard," Hutchison said Saturday from Dallas. "Texans know that I have been fighting for Texas all of my time in the Senate and always will."

Noting that Perry is the first Texas governor who has tried to spend 14 years in office, she charged that he is "treading water rather than leading." She said she will quit the Senate after the primary, once Congress has dealt with health care and the Obama administration's cap-and-trade proposal, which she calls "a job-killer for Texas."

Her campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, said of Perry, "I don't believe he has a moral compass. He has a political compass and it's spinning in all different directions."

Watching from Houston is White, whose chances in November are considered stronger against the tough-talking Perry than against Hutchison -- a distinction that gives Hutchison backers hope that moderate Republicans might rally to her side in the March primary.

"This race is going to be about competence, as opposed to image and the politics of wedge issues," White said in a telephone interview, referring to the general election. "This race is not going to be about who has the biggest hair, or one political party or what somebody else is doing in Washington."