Polls say Perry leads Hutchison in Texas showdown

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

AUSTIN -- 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.

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."

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