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

A candidate for governor, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is campaigning through the state in a close race against Gov. Rick Perry for the Republican nomination.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010

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."

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