Tea party uprising could force rematch of GOP fight between Texas titans for governor

By Kelley Shannon, AP
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fight of the Texas titans in home stretch

AUSTIN, Texas — A Republican showdown building for years between two Texas titans, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, highlights the anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood of voters and the muddle that the tea party movement is making in midterm elections.

Support among angry protest voters for a third candidate, Debra Medina, could force Perry and Hutchison to square off again if no candidate gets a majority in Texas’ primary election Tuesday.

Hutchison, a regal and reserved Washington veteran, is fighting to force an April 13 runoff for the GOP nomination for governor. Perry, a folksy, go-for-the-jugular campaigner and the epitome of Texas Republican conservatism, is pushing hard to wrap it up next week.

On the Democratic side, ex-Houston Mayor Bill White is considered a shoo-in for his party’s nomination over Houston hair-care magnate and political newcomer Farouk Shami.

The cat-and-dog GOP primary fight that Perry once promised would be brutal has grown meaner in its final weeks. Through it all, he’s stuck with one theme: Hutchison represents Washington and all that is wrong with it.

Hutchison has jabbed at Perry’s record the nine years he’s been governor — his all-but-dead plan for toll roads that threaten private property, a short-lived order to mandate vaccinations for girls against the cancer-causing HPV virus and his revolving door of top aides and lobbyists that she calls cronyism.

Though Hutchison was once seen as the candidate who could deliver Perry’s first election loss in a lifetime of public office, the governor emerged as the front-runner. Hutchison is more moderate than Perry on social issues like abortion, and that’s been one of her rough spots with many Republican primary voters.

“Almost from the moment someone fired the gun at the starting line, he simply out-campaigned her,” said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. Perry, he said, has run “a superb campaign, almost a textbook campaign.”

A poll in early February for major Texas newspapers found Perry leading with 45 percent support among likely Republican voters. Hutchison had 29 percent and Medina 17 percent. The April 13 runoff between the top two vote-getters will be required if no candidate gets a majority win Tuesday.

The telephone survey was conducted before Medina went on Glenn Beck’s nationally syndicated radio show and said there were “some very good arguments” that the U.S. government was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She released a statement later the same day saying she didn’t believe that.

But 61-year-old Alan Charles of Justin switched his allegiance from Medina to Hutchison after hearing the remark.

“I can’t vote for somebody who believes that George Bush and the federal government can kill 3,000 American citizens. I can’t do that,” he said. Charles said he can’t back Perry because he views him as a “good ‘ole boy.”

Medina has been a favorite of many Tea Party voters and some moderate Texans looking for an outside alternative to Perry and Hutchison. While hard-core supporters may not leave her because of the terrorist attack remark, it may cost her with other protest voters, Polinard said.

But Perry also remains a darling of many in the tea party movement, courting them at their rallies with his anti-Washington rhetoric. Atter one of them last April 15 — the federal income tax filing deadline — he suggested to reporters that “if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people,” Texans might entertain the notion of seceding from the union.

Perry has been able to make a bully pulpit of the governor’s office, which is intentionally weak in Texas but highly visible. Hutchison has shied from playing up her 16 years in the U.S. Senate given state Republicans’ irritation with Congress.

After saying she would leave the Senate and return to Texas fulltime in the fall, Hutchison decided instead to stay in Washington to fight President Barack Obama’s health care bill. That gave more ammunition to Perry’s anti-Washington message. Hutchison acknowledged this week it has hurt her.

Self-proclaimed tea party backers Paula McDonald and her mother Pat Robinson were at a Hutchison campaign event in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, where they described her as a “a wonderful person.” But they said they’d prefer her to remain in Washington and that they’ll vote for Perry.

“We don’t want Washington brought down to Texas,” McDonald said.

Associated Press writer Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas contributed to this report.

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