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As temperatures dip into the low 80s, providing a brief respite from the searing September, a crowd of people enter the side entrance of the Jewish Community Center in North Dallas. Perhaps the pleasant afternoon weather is bashert, Yiddish for "meant to be," as the local Republican Jewish Coalition, which is hosting a Kay Bailey Hutchison meet-and-greet, hopes for a large turnout.
Democrats might view the notion of a Republican Jewish coalition as oxymoronic, considering the Jewish community is not widely perceived as part of the traditional base of Christian-right conservatives, small-government libertarians and country-club establishment types who make up the true believers of the Republican Party. But tell that to the other 43 Republican Jewish Coalition chapters across the country or the middle-aged man entering the meeting wearing a black yarmulke with the GOP elephant sewn on the back. Or to Senator Hutchison, who's relying in her primary battle to unseat incumbent Republican Governor Rick Perry on a big-tent campaign — one that seeks to expand the base of the party by appealing to like-minded minorities and independents.
Many in the crowd don't need to be reminded of Perry's comments three years ago after he attended Sunday services at a mega-church in San Antonio and voiced agreement with its minister, who declared in a sermon that all non-Christians would be condemned to hell. "In my faith, that's what it says, and I'm a believer of that," he told The Dallas Morning News in November 2006.
Hutchison is dressed in a pastel pink suit with an austere, high-buttoned collar that makes her seem more rigid than usual. She takes the microphone and quickly aligns herself with her audience, speaking about the historic relationship between Israel and the United States as "the strongest bond between two countries in the world." Then comes the Obama-bashing: She casts the president's September 9 health-care speech before Congress as "much ado about nothing" and his health-care reforms as a government takeover that will "tear down our system."
The senator then turns her attention to Perry: Texas, she says, has the country's highest property taxes, an educational system with the worst drop-out rate in the country and cronyism in its state agencies, which she attributes to Perry being in office too long (he is seeking an unprecedented third term) and the appointment of his friends and donors to positions of power. Sure, the state is in "pretty good shape" to weather the recession, but that's because Texas is a right-to-work state and has no state income tax — neither of which Perry can take credit for.
"I do think Texas is better off treading water than every other state, but I don't think treading water is good enough," she says.
Never much of a spellbinder, Hutchison fails to stir the audience or, for that matter, articulate a compelling message as to why, by waging a primary battle against a sitting governor, she is forcing Republicans to choose sides and risking the implosion of the party. She does, however, manage to wake up the crowd near the end of her speech with a big-tent plea that garners the loudest applause of the day.
"We need to rebuild the Republican Party, and we need to do it by welcoming people in," she says. "If you're for limited government, if you're for low taxes and if you're for a good business climate in our state, we want you to be a Republican."
In the audience sits Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman, who's Jewish and an avowed big tenter. He would later say that his presence at the event was not an endorsement of Hutchison's candidacy but rather her campaign strategy. As county chair, he has reached out to Hispanics, blacks, gays, even moderates. "If we believe we are right in our principles, then we should be proud to go into any neighborhood in the country and talk about them."
Neerman remains unconcerned with alienating social conservatives who say "yes" to God, guns and the pro-life agenda and "no" to gay marriage, evolution and stem cell research. But Hutchison doesn't have that luxury. Hers is a delicate balance between broadening the appeal of her candidacy while energizing the traditional base of the party, which might easily see her outreach efforts as treason. And if she paints herself too far to the right in the primary, she may have trouble moving to the center in the general election — though that might not be a consideration if the Democratic field remains as it is now, bereft of a formidable contender.
No one is quicker to holler treason than Governor Rick Perry, who though only re-elected in 2006 by an embarrassing 39 percent of the vote, has managed to reinvent himself on the national stage, perhaps even as someone with presidential aspirations. His anti-federal stimulus, anti-Washington, pro-secessionist rhetoric has tapped into the sentiments of extreme-right, Tea Party activists who see Obama as the anti-Christ and his proposed health-care reforms as Hitlerian. It also serves another purpose: By attacking Washington, he attacks Hutchison, who has spent the last 16 years as a Washington insider.
As a result, Hutchison has been forced into an "I'm more conservative than you are" message war, which she is ideologically ill-equipped to win as a right-of-center Republican who has compromised on social issues such as abortion.