Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Perry vs Hutchison: Clash of the Cheerleaders

Perry vs. Hutchison, clash of heavyweights


Mark Davis
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

So the rodeo's on.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has formed an exploratory committee, the first step toward challenging Rick Perry for the Texas governor's mansion in 2010. Democratic and Republican lines are already forming for the vacancy she would create upon resigning from the Senate.

She doesn't have to. Her term expires in 2012, and there are strong arguments for staying put. First, continued national stature is probably a campaign plus, especially as part of a heroic remaining Republican contingent fighting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Obama era.

Second, combing Texas during a gubernatorial campaign would surely give her a bond with voters that would serve her well for the remainder of her Senate term, if she were to lose.

Would anyone gripe about such divided attention? Maybe, but they're probably not her voters anyway. Her many admirers are bound to embrace whatever she chooses to do. You will recall that George W. Bush bolted from his freshly won second gubernatorial term to run for president, annoying virtually no one.

For his part, former Comptroller John Sharp says he will seek the Democratic nomination for the Hutchison seat, even if he has to wait four years. One assumes other contenders are banking on 2010, including fellow Democrat Bill White, the mayor of Houston, who is weighing both the Senate vacancy and the gubernatorial battle.

On the Republican side, while questions simmer as to the interest of Texas' U.S. House delegation, two strong state-level candidates are up and running.

Tasked with fending off disaster in a state that may be turning purple, Texas Victory 2008 Chairman Roger Williams announced an exploratory committee this week. His connections and fundraising acumen are vast, with political chops that reach back to his service as Texas secretary of state and people skills gleaned from selling countless cars in Weatherford.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro's committee, formed in July, is buoyed by early success attracting both money and endorsements from Senate colleagues.

But all of this intrigue is taking place in the wings. The current focus is on the titanic contest that looms between one of Texas history's most distinguished U.S. senators and its longest-serving governor (a title Mr. Perry will inherit next week when his days of service outnumber twice-elected Bill Clements).

Mr. Perry was in full campaign mode as a special guest at a recent event for state Rep. Ken Paxton in McKinney, offering enthusiastic support for his host and making sure the gathered Republicans heard the story of how well Texas is doing against the backdrop of a struggling country.

Governors overseeing such a record are usually tough to topple, and I would assert that even with the recent increased volume of Republican grumbling, Mr. Perry would easily dispatch any challenger of lower wattage than Ms. Hutchison in the primary and general elections.

But it looks like she's in, and with a reaction louder than the cricket chirps that accompanied the idea in 2005. Then, the overwhelming opinion of Texas Republicans was to leave well enough alone, with him in Austin and her in Washington.

Now, with enough GOP voters willing to at least entertain her challenge, the news is about her.

But the primary 15 months from now will be about him.

It will be a referendum on what will then be the 10th year of the Perry governorship. If he has amassed enough good will to outweigh concerns even his own voters have developed about issues from the borders to the Trans-Texas Corridor, he will survive this most daunting of tests. If not, he won't. It's that simple.

The Hutchison campaign's first task will be intriguing, as she seeks to find and exploit whatever true differences she has with a governor whose voters almost unanimously supported her as well.

Mark Davis is heard weekdays from 8:30 to 11 a.m. on WBAP-AM, News/Talk 820. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com

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