The primary isn't until Tuesday, but in what sure sounded like throat-clearing for her concession speech, Kay Bailey Hutchison said this week that she just can't believe that Gov. Rick Perry managed to get so many Republican primary voters in Texas to see her as this creature of Washington. Perry, who unless he starts channeling Claytie Williams or goes on a killing rampage is likely to prevail next week, talked about his bid for a third term in an interview with Politics Daily.
I spent six years in Texas in the 80s, so it's not like I've never heard a darlin' or a monophthong. Yet I don't think I've ever spoken to anyone whose diction so closely resembles that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, with whom he was never particularly close. (Yes, they both grew up in West Texas, 200 miles and several galaxies apart, since one came from privilege and the other was the son of tenant farmers. But it's the way Perry punches his words that's distractingly familiar.)
The governor is fighting a cold on the day of our interview, but assures me that his germs are nontransferable — "'Scuse me, but I'm not catchin." Dressed all in black, a la Johnny Cash, he hikes up his pant legs to show off what he calls his 9/11 boots, with "Justice" on one foot and "Liberty" on the other. If the campaign is going well, he says — and oh, it has been, from start to finish, really — then in his view, that's mainly because the voters are so smart.
"Texans are pretty astute, and we both have records. I have a very fiscally conservative record here in Texas, whereas she has a record that's outside the conservative mainstream. Her vote for the [Wall Street] bailout offends them greatly. With the economy being on everyone's mind, there's great concern about what's coming out of Washington, D.C. — energy policy, health care, and the cost of those programs — so they have a clear differentiation between a true conservative, and not so much.''
I don't laugh or anything, but though Perry's conservative bona fides are not in question — he's suing the EPA for even trying to regulate greenhouse gases — the policy differences between the two Republicans are somewhere between microscopic and theoretical.
Supposedly, Hutchison is a couple of centimeters to his left on social issues. But her 7 percent rating from NARAL seems about right for someone who has sided with the National Right to Life Committee on 10 of the last 11 relevant votes, parting company with abortion opponents only on a vote to expand stem cell research. Even when she criticized Perry's sudden removal of three members of the state panel looking into whether a botched arson investigation had led to the execution of an innocent man, she attacked from his right, accusing the governor of handing lefties a blunt instrument. ("The only thing Rick Perry's actions have accomplished is giving liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty," said Hutchison spokesman Joe Pounder, adding that Hutchison, a staunch supporter of the death penalty, "believes we should never do anything to create a cloud of controversy over it with actions that look like a cover-up.")
A couple of primary voters have mentioned that immigration is one issue where Perry might actually be a little more moderate than Hutchison, since he does support in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. But when I mention that perception, he acts as though I have accused him of unspeakable acts: "Moderate?'' he spits. "I'll tell you what I believe: a wall between us along a 1,200-mile-long barrier to stop immigration" — a wall Hutchison has supported — "is outside the realm of reality...The federal government has not attempted to secure our border, and the senator has been up there'' in Washington.
When I hear him talk about his opponent, who for months he claimed might not even be running, I have to wonder if not taking her candidacy seriously for such a long time might not be mistaken for not taking her seriously; does he?
"I think that's a legitimate question. Whether or not it gets into the realm of taking her serious as a candidate, I take her serious. But I took Kinky Friedman serious'' when he ran against Perry as an independent in '06, and took 13 percent of the vote.
Because Hutchison did hesitate for months over when she'd leave the Senate, Perry cites that as evidence of "her indecisiveness as a candidate. I make life and death decisions — Katrina and Rita'' and also Cameron Willingham, whose execution he refused to delay. "I don't have the luxury of being indecisive. She's been in D.C. not having to make decisions.''
Then again, he also takes a shot at Hutchison for deciding to leave her current post: "That's what we hired you to do — your work in Washington!'' he says, as if speaking to the senator, who has said she'll leave the Senate whatever the outcome of the primary next week, when Perry is expected to either win outright or be forced into a runoff with Hutchison by a third candidate, Debra Medina. The Republican nominee will likely face Democrat Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, in the fall.
One of Hutchison's strongest criticisms of Perry has been that he runs state government like a clubhouse of cronies, appointing donors and forcing out any who grow an independent streak, like the two former Texas Tech regents who've said they were pressured to resign after making public statements supportive of Hutchison. Though he's denied pressuring anybody, to the charge that he brooks no political dissent from appointees, he says that's right, he sure doesn't: "I hope the people I've bestowed one of the most precious things a governor has, an appointment, I expect them to make good decisions. I don't think anybody who works for me considers me a micromanager... but I do want people to be loyal from a political standpoint. I would be disappointed'' if someone "I appointed decided to endorse a political opponent'' and would "consider them a distraction to the other loyal members. I look at a little bigger picture.''
While we're on the subject of loyalty, I ask about his friend Dick Cheney's endorsement of Hutchison, but on that one he's not biting. "Endorsements are an interesting thing,'' he shrugs. One non-Texan he describes as a real friend and not only a political one is Sarah Palin, who has campaigned for him. "Sarah and I have been friends long before'' she became John McCain's running mate in '08. At meetings of the Republican Governors Association, the two sat together, and found out how much they had in common: "We both liked to hunt, run, and we both like the country... I consider her a very dear friend.''
His final dig at Hutchison is that she's articulated no particular reason that Republicans should move him out and her in: "When you are running for an office, you have to make the case for your vision. I haven't seen one policy or statement that's stimulated the electorate. 'It's my turn and I want to come home' isn't catching it," he adds.
His own argument for his election to a third term is simply that Texans deserve more of the same: "We've got an economy that's the envy of the other 49 states,'' he said, but "we're not to the point I feel I can walk away... I'm still very passionate about getting up every day doing this job, so walking away would be like Van Gogh walking away when he's two-thirds finished with a masterpiece.''