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And yet to win the Texas Republican primary, she must out-conservative Perry, who is in perennial campaign mode and always on the attack. He has been quick to cast her as an inept, inside-the-Beltway politico who is out of step with everyday Texans and a compulsive flip-flopper who can't make up her mind whether she even wants to run for governor.
Hutchison, although at one time considered unbeatable with through-the-roof approval ratings, the highest of any officeholder in Texas, came out of the blocks clumsily when she officially announced her candidacy in mid-August. She scored a direct hit in the conservative endorsement wars by signing on former Vice President Dick Cheney, but her recent decision to remain in the Senate until after the March 2 primary could cause voters to question her commitment to her campaign and result in some hard feelings among ambitious Republican leaders who had placed their own political careers on hold until she made her intentions clear.
"The fact that she's holding onto the seat is screwing up the plans of a lot of other prominent Republicans, and they can't be happy about it," says Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. "Even if they understand it, they're not pleased, because they thought they were going to make their next move."
Both candidates are running guarded campaigns at this point — their public appearances are heavily scripted, their exposure to media questions limited, their attacks and counterattacks done through representatives (Jennifer Baker for Hutchison, Mark Miner for Perry) or unmanned press-release drones. Both candidates have refused multiple interview requests for this story through their representatives.
At stake is more than just the governor's mansion. It's a pitched battle for the soul of the Republican Party not only statewide but nationally as the GOP tries to figure out how to keep itself relevant in the age of Obama. Must it go to the hard right and maintain ideological purity by purging itself of moderates, as Perry suggests; must it cast its lot with newly elected Republican Party of Texas chair Cathie Adams, the former president of the socially conservative Texas Eagle Forum and a Perry supporter who feels there's a high moral cost to tempering ideology with moderation?
Or is there room underneath the tent for pro-choice Republicans, Log Cabin Republicans and "environmental wackos," as Adams describes them, who believe in limited government, lower taxes and a strong national defense?
"I'm not going to change my philosophy. I just want all the people who agree with us to be with us," Hutchison tells those assembled at the Jewish Community Center.
The battle lines of the civil war are drawn: Hutchison vs. Perry, Longhorn vs. Aggie, party diversity vs. party purity, right of center vs. extreme right, a race that could energize the party or one that may tear it apart.
After nine years as governor, his face is etched with a few more wrinkles, but he hasn't lost his thick head of dark brown hair — a Perry trademark — neatly trimmed and delicately styled with just the right touch of distinguished gray.
On November 4, Perry took the stage at the Texas Economic Development Summit, an initiative of the Office of the Governor's Economic Development and Tourism Division, held at Union Station in downtown Dallas. Perry, 59, is touted as the featured speaker, but his succinct speech hits the same grand, canned theme he uses on the stump: the Texas Miracle. "I'm willing to tell anyone that will listen that the land of opportunity still exists in America, and it's in Texas," he says, triggering applause from the nearly 200 attendees. By embracing principles that cut spending, limit government and strengthen schools, Texas is attracting employers who have been chased out of other states. "When they get here, they find that our doors are open."
Perry mentions that companies often ask him to back up his claim that Texas is the best place to do business in the country, and he cites various magazine articles that name Texas cities such as Houston, Dallas and San Antonio as the first to emerge from the recession. "Bottom line," Perry says. "The word's out on Texas. The word is good."
His view of economic theory is decidedly trickle-down and Reaganesque. By shrinking the size of government, by having fewer regulations, more businesses will be attracted to the state, which will in turn stimulate economic growth. Hardly the philosophy you'd expect from a former liberal, but Perry's come a long way from his days as a Democrat in the Texas House and serving as statewide chair of Al Gore's failed 1988 presidential bid.
But times were changing and Republicans were ascending. The proud Texas A&M grad and former cotton farmer switched parties in 1989 to challenge Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, and Perry's arrow has bent to the right ever since. A narrow win over Hightower in 1990 and a successful re-election campaign in 1994 convinced him to make a run at becoming the first Republican lieutenant governor elected in the history of the state. He won a close race in 1998 against Democrat John Sharp (now a candidate for Hutchison's seat) in what proved to be a fast track to the governor's mansion when George W. Bush left the office in 2000 to become president.