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Sen. Hutchison struggles in challenge to Texas Gov. Rick Perry

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A01

DENTON, TEX. -- Shortly after Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison walked into Ruby's Diner on the Square here Tuesday morning, Bob Andrews greeted her warmly. "Welcome back to Texas," he said.

Hutchison recoiled. "I live in Texas," she said.

At it turns out, Andrews is a supporter. He strongly backs Hutchison in her campaign to defeat Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican gubernatorial primary. But his greeting touched a nerve that explains why Hutchison is a distinct underdog in Tuesday's balloting.

At a time of rising anger toward Washington, Perry has hung Hutchison's service in the nation's capital around her neck. His campaign calls her "Kay Bailout" for her support of the financial industry rescue. He has attacked her for the earmark projects she has secured for Texas, which he describes as symptomatic of out-of-control spending in Washington.

"He definitely has made it more difficult for me," she said aboard her campaign bus. "I've protected Texas. I've brought Texas taxpayer dollars back to Texas very successfully, and I've voted for Texas values. I didn't think that anyone could turn my success in producing results for Texas into a negative."

This is not the campaign Hutchison, or for that matter many Texans, anticipated. More than a year ago, when it became clear that the state's first female senator would challenge Perry, many analysts expected a competitive campaign between two popular and long-serving Texas politicians who represent competing wings of the Republican Party.

Since then, the national political landscape has turned upside down, with anger aimed at President Obama and his policies producing energy among once-demoralized conservative activists. The result is a primary that, in its final week, lacks energy and intensity, with the only suspense being whether Perry can avoid a runoff by winning a majority of the vote Tuesday.

Perry has skillfully ridden anger against Washington. He became a folk hero on the right last year when he alluded to a Texas secession. And whenever he can, he stokes that anger, as he did in a recent interview.

"President Obama," he said, "has substantial socialist beliefs" and is surrounded by "a group of people who want to entice Americans, or blackmail Americans, into taking money that will create a dependence on the federal government. And at that particular point in time, they control your life."

Hutchison has floundered. "I believe there's a whole new fear that I've never seen before because of the overreach of the Democrats [in Washington]," she said, "and I think that people aren't looking at the future for Texas because they're so panicked about the future of America."

Endorsements are symbolic of the gulf between Perry and Hutchison. She has the support of former president George H.W. Bush and former vice president Richard B. Cheney, as well as the endorsements of all the major newspapers in Texas. Perry has no newspaper endorsements, but he has the support of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who drew more than 5,000 people when she appeared with him in Houston on Super Bowl Sunday.

Perry draws a stark contrast to describe the choice for GOP voters: "Sixteen years of Washington culture, bailouts, spend-it-all, spend-it-now mentality that prevails in Washington versus a proven fiscal conservative who has extensive executive leadership experience."

Was he not grateful for the millions that Hutchison had helped bring back to Texas over the years? "Here's the problem," he said. "You've got to get the whole enchilada, so to speak, and the whole enchilada is making America sick at its stomach."

Conservative domination

Hutchison's struggles are understandable. In a primary dominated by conservatives, the more conservative candidate -- in this case Perry -- has an advantage. And many Texas Republicans like having Hutchison in the Senate and Perry in Austin. In a recent poll, both had overwhelmingly favorable images among Republicans.

Daron Shaw, a political science professor at the University of Texas, said of Hutchinson's campaign: "The task they've had is convincing Texas Republicans to fire Rick Perry, and I don't think they have ever articulated a compelling, consistent reason for that."

Hutchison has tried to get to Perry's right. She argues that he has raised spending significantly as governor. (He says he's kept increases below the combined growth of inflation and population.) She says he has raised taxes.

She also contends that he is ignoring a looming education crisis.

But her attacks have not stuck. Unemployment in Texas has risen but remains below the national average. The budget is healthier than in many other states.

Hutchison has served in the Senate since 1993 and has won all her elections with at least 60 percent of the vote. Perry was first elected to office as a Democrat, but as Texas moved from staunchly Democrat to staunchly Republican, he switched parties. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1998, and in December 2000, when George W. Bush resigned to become president, Perry ascended to the governor's mansion.

As this campaign began, Perry appeared vulnerable in part because of his lackluster reelection victory in 2006, when he captured just 39 percent of the vote in a four-person race, and because of his longevity in office. "It's just wrong for somebody to stay 14 years and become arrogant and start feeling like they're running everything and everyone else should just get out of the way," Hutchison said.

Perry's long tenure has allowed him to dominate the government in ways the state Constitution never envisioned for a governor. He has been accused of cronyism and operating a revolving door in which aides have become lobbyists and lobbyists have become aides. Facing criticism that he had allowed an innocent man to be executed, Perry last fall swapped out members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, including the chairman, delaying an investigation that might have been critical of his actions.

The Dallas Morning News, in its endorsement of Hutchison, condemned Perry for "bully tactics" and "strong-arm style."

Hutchison says she did not challenge Perry four years ago because she was told that he would not run in 2010. "He said to everyone, 'I only want one more term,' " she said. "So I did step aside when I could have won."

Not true "in any form or fashion," Perry responded, calling the assertion "one of the great urban legends created by the Hutchison campaign."

Hutchison has not had a difficult campaign since she first won office, and it has shown. Her campaign has stumbled. She dithered for months after saying she would resign from the Senate to campaign full time for governor. Late last year, she announced that she would remain in the Senate to fight Obama's health-care initiative.

She said she plans to resign this year, no matter the outcome of the gubernatorial race. She said the issue "definitely hurt, but it was not my doing. It was the progress of health-care reform."

Hutchison, who trails Perry by double digits in recent polls, is struggling to keep the race going at least another month. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, Texas law requires a runoff. Perry said he is confident that he will cross that threshold.

Hutchison's hopes of a runoff depend in part on a third candidate, conservative Debra Medina, a favorite of many Texans who identify with the "tea party" movement. Medina performed well in an early debate and was rising in the polls, but her momentum was blunted when she told Glenn Beck that the conspiracy theorists who say the federal government was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks "have some very good arguments."

'I am a Texan'

As Hutchison campaigned at diners, barbecue joints, a Dairy Queen and a coffee shop, she exhorted supporters to help turn out enough voters to keep the race going. "I am a Texan," she told reporters at one stop. "I support the values of Texas, and I've been very successful in protecting Texas in my role in the Senate."

It was an appeal the fifth-generation Texan could hardly have imagined having to invoke when the race began.

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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