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Two Republican powers, Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, face off in first Texas gov debate

January 14, 2010 |  4:56 pm

Texas Republicans Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Governor Rick Perry in happier days

While much of the U.S. political world focuses on Massachusetts and the completely, ridiculously impossible, improbable and outrageous idea that a Republican might win the U.S. Senate seat occupied so long there by another Democratic icon named Kennedy, the political struggle for the conservative soul of the nation's second largest state is at stake.

Tonight is the first Republican gubernatorial primary debate in Texas, broadcast statewide, pitting two GOP heavyweights against each other -- Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, who inherited the large suite of high-ceilinged downtown offices when his predecessor, someone named George W. Bush, became president.

As usual in Texas politics, there is a personal element involved in this race leading up to the March primary. Despite the photo above, which was not Photoshopped, Perry and Hutchison do not....

...get along, never have, never will. Their competition for the prominent political podium of Texas will sorely test their obedience to Ronald Reagan's hallowed 11th Commandment about never speaking ill of fellow Republicans.

As there was back in the 1990s when Bush unexpectedly overthrew the tart-tongued Democratic favorite incumbent Ann Richards, now deceased, there is also the gender element.

Yes, times have changed in America. But as the savvy Christy Hoppe of the Dallas Morning News points out so well, Texas is still the South. A gentleman (Perry) cannot verbally beat up a lady (Hutchison) and the lady cannot come off as a shrill natterer.

To complicate things, but no doubt enhance Texas public TV ratings for a change this evening, debate organizers decided to include Debra Medina as a wild-card third wheel, a Tea Party supporter with nada to lose who wouldn't mind badly wounding either or both of these party establishment types.She'll probably go after Perry mostly as the incumbent.

A smart breakout appearance by her would help, well, establish that upstart brand of conservatism in the Lone Star state -- and elsewhere where Medina is building considerable online support. Hutchison can probably get away with ignoring the other female, but Perry could look condescending doing the same.

The son of a Democrat, Perry is now the longest-serving governor in state history (December, 2000). He's seeking an unprecedented third four-year term.

He'll try to portray himself as the genuine conservative in the race, one whose delivered jobs, boosted the state's economy and resisted intrusion by those evil feds up there in Washington where -- oh look -- Hutchison has been for 2.5 terms, as a genuine conservative who also supported the federal bailout of banks and embryonic stem cell research.

From the depths of Democratic dominance some 20-odd years ago, Texas Republicans (including a once little-known political engineer named Karl Rove) have risen and now hold all 29 statewide elected offices, including the entire Supreme Court.

They've won every governor's election in a quarter-century and every Senate election in two decades. But longevity in politics is a double-edged sword, especially in an activist state like Texas, allowing for baggage and enemies to accumulate.

And a serious gunfight at the very top of the ticket this year could inflict lasting wounds that might imperil GOP dominance come November.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Associated Press