No GOP lovefest deep in the heart of Texas

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International  |  Feb. 28, 2010 at 4:30 AM
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The Texas Republican gubernatorial race once looked like a walk in the park for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison but now Gov. Rick Perry is coming up roses.

A late-season, albeit small, upward move in the polls by Debra Medina raised the possibility a runoff between Perry and Hutchison may be necessary after Tuesday's primary to determine who will be the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Everything has turned topsy-turvy in the Texas Republican gubernatorial primary -- as Hutchison catches flak for being a senator during a devastating recession and Perry's bully pulpit can't seem to fully salt away an outright primary win.

In a state known as a football player factory and for doing things big, politics is no exception. Being embraced by the Tea Party movement is a badge of honor and being conservative sometimes is a four-letter word.

Modern Texas politics is a mix of economic liberalism (belief in a free market economy), social conservatism (a preference for traditional values) and populism (promoting rights and merits of everyday Joes), a treatise on Texas political culture posted on the University of Texas-Austin Web site said. Subscribers to these ideologies tend to favor low taxes, fewer government services and pro-business policies.

A Rasmussen Reports poll Wednesday indicated Perry was leading the race with 48 percent to 27 percent for Hutchison and 16 percent for Medina, with the remainder undecided. The margin of error is 4.5 percentage points.

The winner of Tuesday's Republican primary likely will face former Houston Mayor Bill White, who's leading a field of seven hopefuls.

Rick Perry: Railing against Washington

The Air Force pilot won a legislative seat as a Democrat in 1984 and has been winning ever since. He switched parties after Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Perry moved from the lieutenant governor's office to the governor's office in 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency. Two years later, he won the office outright and survived a four-way race in 2006, with a mere 39 percent plurality.

Perry eschewed seeking newspaper endorsements this primary season but picked up the imprimatur of Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and darling of the Republican's core conservatives.

After initially appearing vulnerable in his effort to be Texas's chief executive for a third full term, Perry roared back, riding the nationwide wave of discontent with Washington and President Barack Obama. The turnaround came through Perry's promotion of the Texas economy -- and its rainy day fund of about $8 billion -- and sounding off against every decision made in Washington, The New York Times reported.

"Do you want a leader who loves Texas and all it stands for or a creature of Washington that tears down the state," he asked an audience that included many Tea Partiers during the rally where Palin endorsed him. "I happen to think America would be a whole lot better off if Washington did things the Texas way."

He deflects Hutchison's accusations of cronyism and influence peddling as a "tired, old attack" while his aides say he always acts ethically.

Perry has cast his lot with anti-tax champions and social conservatives, rarely missing a chance to rail against Congress, the U.S. Senate and Obama, even when Texas gets federal funds.

Last fall, he said "thanks but no thanks" to federal funds for education and unemployment benefits, saying the money would drive up state spending. More recently, Perry announced a court challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's finding that gases blamed for global warning threatened public health, arguing the findings would harm the state's economy.

Kay Bailey Hutchison: 'I'm the conservative'

The Lone Star state's senior senator's star shown bright when she threw her hat into the gubernatorial ring last year. But with a still-sour economy and a broad-brush painting of Washington denizens as scalawags, the luster has faded.

Hutchison can't seem to dent Perry's populist armor, no matter the tack she takes.

Accusations of cronyism and influence peddling -- which Perry and his aides deny -- are flicked away like an annoying mosquito. Arguments that he's not a real conservative -- with Hutchison charging that taxes and spending rose more than inflation on his watch -- are falling on deaf ears, the Times reported.

"He's not a conservative," she said. "I'm the conservative in the race."

Even armed with a boatload of newspaper endorsements and the backing of such Texas favorite sons as former President George H.W. Bush and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, Hutchison admits her prospects are in doubt and a Hail Mary pass is "looking better all the time."

Elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election in 1993, Hutchison was the first -- and so far only -- woman elected to represent the state in the Senate. A year later she was elected to a full six-year term.

With her longevity comes some measure of power. Hutchison is the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. She also serves on the Appropriations Committee; the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, and the Committee on Rules and Administration.

When the Republicans were in power, Hutchison was chairwoman and is now the ranking GOP member of Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.

Hutchison, a member of the old-guard Republican Party, has drawn criticism from several quarters. She was criticized by the Tea Party movement over her vote to force consideration of the defense bill in December, which opened up resumption of Senate consideration of its healthcare reform measure, which she opposed, The Dallas Morning News reported at the time.

She also was chastised by the good-government group Citizens Against Government Waste, which criticized her earmarks and appropriations as pet projects or pork, said. The non-partisan group named Hutchison "Porker of the Month" in October, based on her legislative history and her request for 149 such pork projects worth $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2010.

About the only question left hanging is whether/when Hutchison will resign her Senate seat.

Hutchison is still telling supporters she intends to resign after the primary, insisting the time is right, the Morning News said. During a recent fundraiser, when some supporters urged her to remain in the Senate, she told them she was ready to leave.

Debra Medina: Right of conservative

The spoiler for Perry's outright win, Medina is considered more conservative than either the incumbent or Hutchison. Political observers note her recent rise in the polls is attributable in some measure to discontent among conservative Republicans.

Medina has Tea Party bona fides -- she worked on the presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a member of the Liberty Caucus of Republican congressmen aiming to limit the size and scope of the federal government.

Her signature issues include replacing property taxes with sales taxes and cutting away at government regulations, reported the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and distributed through the McClatchy news service.

She says she's been misrepresented as a Libertarian by the media, contending she was generally aligned with the Texas Republican Party's platform.

"If you go to look up 'good old Texas girl' in the dictionary, you'd find Debra Medina," she said. "There's nothing radical or extreme about me except my zeal for the U.S. Constitution and honesty in government."

Some supporters, detractors and observers said Medina may have hurt her cause during an interview with conservative talk show host Glenn Beck by not immediately disavowing a theory that the U.S. government may have played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The nurse and former Wharton County, Texas, Republican chairwoman quickly said there was no doubt that Muslim terrorists flew the hijacked planes in an effort to repair the damage quickly.

For her part, Medina said the interview generated support and campaign contributions, but others say it may have driven some of her supporters into Perry's camp.

In the Democratic primary, White, the former mayor, and hair-care magnate Farouk Shami are the leading candidates.

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