Bill White eagerly watches Perry-Hutchison battle in Texas

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

The eyes of Texas are on Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary between Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. And that's just how former Houston mayor Bill White likes it.

White is heavily favored to emerge as the Democratic nominee -- he faces free-spending hair-care magnate Farouk Shami -- and is seen by both state and national observers as the party's first real chance of breaking the vise grip that Republicans have had on the state's top office since George W. Bush unseated Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in 1994.

"Under Governor Perry, Texas will stand still," White said in a recent interview with the Fix -- his cowboy hat sitting on the table in front of him. (Yes, he was wearing cowboy boots, too.) "I define success as not simply winning elections but doing something once you get there."

That White spent all his rhetorical fire on Perry, not Hutchison, speaks to the conventional wisdom that the governor will win the GOP nomination -- either on Tuesday or in an April 13 runoff. (Polling shows Hutchison trailing Perry by double digits, with little-known third-party candidate Debra Medina winning between 15 and 20 percent.)

A Perry victory, White and his fellow Democrats believe, make it possible to pull off what would be a major upset with wide-ranging implications for the next decade. Texas is slated to gain as many as four congressional seats after the 2010 Census, and the next governor will have significant sway over where the new districts lie and how they break down demographically.

White's theory of the case against Perry is that while he has run a brilliant primary race against Hutchison -- emphasizing his stalwart support for states' rights and other conservative hot-button issues -- the governor's strong focus on the ideological right will alienate the critical independent voters .

"Rick Perry has run a campaign to try and get 51 percent of those votes, representing a small fraction of the population of the state," White said. "He divides Texans into groups and plays them off against one another."

Four years ago, Perry managed only 39 percent of the vote in a four-way general election, but Democrats were unable to capitalize as their candidate -- former congressman Chris Bell -- never raised the money necessary to compete with the well-funded incumbent.

Not so with White. As of Feb. 20, he had raised better than $9 million for the race -- including a $500,000 contribution from the Democratic Governors Association -- and had $5.4 million in the bank. White transferred several million dollars from a Senate account after he switched to the governor's race in December -- a decision, he says, he made after it became clear that Hutchison was not planning to honor her pledge to him (and others) to resign her seat last fall to focus full time on the campaign. (Hutchison has said she plans to resign her seat this month regardless of the outcome of the primary.)

Beyond money, however, White's persona seems to be an implicit rejection of Perry. Bald and low-key, White looks and acts like the opposite of the man he wants to replace. While Perry has gained national attention for floating the idea of secession for Texas and his assertion that Sam Houston might have made a better president than Abraham Lincoln, White explains his electoral successes -- he was elected mayor in 2003 and reelected in 2005 and 2007 -- simply: "I told people I was going to provide solutions, not just sound bites. And I did that."

Of course, Perry has made a cottage industry of outperforming the low expectations his rivals have for him. Once considered in jeopardy against Hutchison, he has dominated the primary with surprising ease by touting the state's still-strong economy and the continued sense of optimism that Texans hold about the state. (A recent poll sponsored by the Texas Tribune showed that 43 percent of Texans think the state is on the right track while 37 percent believe it is on the wrong track; in the same poll, 31 percent said the country is on the right track and 56 percent said it is on the wrong one.)

Despite those numbers, White insisted that "people are worried about Texas's future" -- citing the state's unemployment rate (the highest, he says, in decades) and the rising cost of college tuition.

At its root, however, White's campaign is less about his substantive differences with Perry (although there are many) than his stylistic ones. "It is important to me and to the people of Texas to have somebody who is real and not contrived," he explained. "That's one of my strengths."

Brown helps McCain

The GOP's new star, Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), will campaign for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) this week. Brown will stump for McCain, who faces a primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth, in Phoenix on Friday and Tucson on Saturday.

"Senator Scott Brown's historic victory this year excited Republicans in Arizona and across the country, and Senator McCain looks forward to campaigning with him," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said Sunday.

Brown, despite his coveted status as a surrogate, has resisted diving into many of this year's races -- his only other endorsement was of Charlie Baker, who is running for governor of Massachusetts. Both men were early supporters of Brown's candidacy in the special election in the Bay State last month.

"John McCain is a personal friend, an American hero and someone who stood by him when no one else thought he had a chance," Brown communications director Gail Gitcho said of her boss's decision to stump for the senator from Arizona.

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