Two GOP heavyweights turning primary into Texas-sized battle

Two GOP heavyweights turning primary into Texas-sized battle

As two of the state’s leading Republicans speed toward a primary showdown in 2010, that adage will again prove prescient.

Rarely do two political giants — who have at times been mentioned as potential presidential contenders — clash as they will when Gov. Rick Perry (R) faces Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) in the state’s March 2 gubernatorial primary. And the candidates will spend what Perry estimates to be $50 million defining themselves and their records — rarely in the nicest of tones.

In what promises to be the collision of an immovable object and an unstoppable force, voters in Texas will decide who will hold the Republican nomination for governor based on two very different views of the Lone Star State and of Washington.

Entrenched in Austin as he runs for a third term, Perry looks to his past in that city, asserting his policies have insulated Texas from the worst of the economic recession.

“The policies that we’ve put in place in Texas [have] put us in a very unique place,” Perry said at a recent roundtable with reporters in D.C. “The state of Texas finds itself to be in a rather enviable position. Yes, we have challenges. We’ve shed jobs in some sectors. But we still have about a thousand people a day moving to Texas.”

Hurtling toward him is Hutchison, who has been in the Senate since winning a special election in 1993. She portrays Perry’s tenure as a time of divisiveness more akin to Washington than Austin, faulting the governor for a marked decline in power for the state Republican Party. Hutchison blames Perry for failing to focus on Texas’s own future.

“We’re not preparing our students for an educated workforce for the future, and that is something I’m going to focus on, because we have one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country and we have one of the highest uninsured rates in the country, and those are not good signals for the future,” Hutchison said in an interview with The Hill.

To Hutchison, the future of Texas dovetails with the future of the Republican Party, something to which Perry has not tended.

“Under Gov. Perry’s leadership, our party has dwindled from 88 in the Texas House to 76 [seats, out of 150]. We are two away from losing the Texas House. Just last year we lost five of the six largest counties in Texas,” she said. “Now, we’re not going to keep a good business climate in Texas if the Republican Party narrows its base so much that we are no longer the majority.”

But before she is able to rebuild the party, in Texas or anywhere, Hutchison will have to get by Perry. Hutchison once sported a substantial lead in the contest, but following a well-publicized moment at a tea party protest on April 15, in which Perry seemed to suggest Texas might secede from the union, the governor’s numbers surged. Polls now suggest the two are running evenly, while many political experts say they think Perry has the momentum.

Perry has adopted that moment of political fortune — when he repeatedly cited the 10th Amendment rights of states — as his campaign theme.

“I hope to be able to be a very influential governor in creating a 10th Amendment movement that makes Washington less and less impactful on the states,” Perry said. “I’m going to run against Washington until Washington changes.

“What I would dearly love to do is have the [comparison] between how Washington is governed and how Texas is governed,” Perry added.

Yet Hutchison calls Perry’s statements a double standard, arguing that he is doing little more than fear-mongering. She presents her rival as someone who would get along well in Washington.

“What’s confusing to me is that the governor rants against Washington but yet is always asking for more from FEMA, asking for more from the stimulus funding, balanced the state budget with stimulus funding, and he constantly criticizes Washington for not doing enough and yet if he’s serious about secession or walking away from Washington, he’s not sending a very clear message,” Hutchison said.

Though there is no resign-to-run law in Texas, Hutchison has said she plans to step down at some point this year, a decision that leaves many campaign experts scratching their heads. By walking away, some argue, Hutchison is giving up a chance to be seen as a major impediment to Democratic legislation and an opportunity to use her seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to twist arms and seek favors. Her Senate term doesn’t expire until 2012.

Hutchison told The Hill she will stay in the Senate through the end of the debate over healthcare, which she called “the most important issue we might face in my [tenure].” That stance recalls another Texas senator, Phil Gramm, who helped his 1996 presidential prospects by declaring President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBest-selling author jokes he knows 'what Pence must feel like' on book tour with Bill Clinton Bill Clinton blasts family separation: 'Children should not be bargaining chips' In memory of Charles Krauthammer, an American genius and dear friend MORE’s attempt to overhaul healthcare would pass “over my cold, dead political body.”

By leaving the Senate, Hutchison says, she will make clear to Texans she is serious about running for governor next year. But it is clear that Hutchison and Perry are already focused on each other, and there is little love lost between the two. As she attacks his record, Perry countercharges that Hutchison has yet to lay out her own vision.

“She’s had eight months to lay out her vision of what she would do, and I would challenge you to go back to Texas and find one person who could tell you why she wants to be the governor of the state of Texas, other than that she hates Washington, D.C., and wants to move back to Texas,” Perry said.

Hutchison called Perry’s ‑‑attacks on her owning a house in Arlington, Va., a “cheap shot.”

Perry “acts more like Washington. He has divided people. He’s been really unable to lead the Legislature, because he’s polarizing,” Hutchison said.

The eventual winner, as bloodied as he or she may be, will begin the general election as the front-runner against one of a small handful of Democrats in the race. Former U.S. Ambassador Tom Schieffer (D), a close friend of President George W. Bush, is running against former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (D) and entertainer Kinky Friedman.

Friedman is seeking the Democratic nomination after taking 12 percent in the general election as an Independent in 2006.