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Poll shows surprising strength by Tea Party's Debra Medina in GOP race for Texas governor

February 9, 2010 |  4:06 pm

Is Debra Medina the next Scott Brown?

Nobody -- well, hardly anybody outside perhaps the Medina household -- expects the small business owner and anti-Washington crusader to be the next governor of Texas. Heck, until recently she wasn’t even much of a factor in the shoot-'em-up between the two leviathans of Lone Star politics, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.Debra Medina   

Then again, up until a couple of weeks out, nobody thought Brown -- a little-known state senator and ex-Cosmo model -- stood much chance of swiping the Massachusetts Senate seat held for almost a half century by the late Edward M. Kennedy. That said, a poll out Tuesday is raising eyebrows all over Texas.

The survey by Public Policy Polling showed Perry leading the GOP field with 39%, followed by Hutchison at 28% and Medina -- a favorite of the Tea Party crowd -- at 24%.

More significant, among self-identified conservatives -- those most likely to turn out in the March 2 primary -- Perry had 42% support to Medina’s 25% and Hutchison’s 23%.

Given the survey’s 4.8% margin of error, Hutchison, long considered the most popular politician in Texas, is effectively tied with the little-known, meagerly funded Medina.

(How meagerly? As of Tuesday, she had raised less than $600,000, a pittance compared to the $50 million Perry and Hutchison are expected to spend between them.)

Of course, no poll can be taken as gospel. The survey, conducted after last month’s second and final GOP gubernatorial debate, had a fairly small sample: 423 likely Republican voters. Still, it seems...

to bear out what many political pros are saying: Hutchison is struggling, Medina is surging and Perry -- who doesn’t exactly blow the barn doors off in terms of popularity -- seems a lot better positioned than most would have imagined a few months ago. Thanks to Medina, the GOP contest seems destined for an April run-off between the two top finishers.

The big question, for the moment at least, is whether Perry will face Hutchison or Medina -- something that enters Scott Brown territory in terms of who-wudda-thunk-it. Clearly, Medina is benefiting from the anti-incumbent anger that is burning, prairie-fire-like, across the country. But she has also gained from a pair of solid debate performances; some declared Medina the winner after the first session in mid-January.

“She was the one who came across, to judge from polls and reaction afterward, as more forthright, better prepared, quite calm and confident,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist and longtime student of state politics. “She was seemingly more gubernatorial than her opponents in some respects.”

Medina enjoyed a surge in contributions after her strong showing, followed by another after the second debate. The question is whether she can sustain the momentum, lacking a prominent statewide platform (there are no more debates scheduled) or the money for a serious advertising campaign. (Turn on the TV and just try to avoid a Perry or Hutchison spot.)

Medina has also enjoyed the luxury of facing little scrutiny on issues. (How high would the state sales tax have to go if Texas eliminates its property tax, as Medina advocates?) That probably won’t last if she is seen as a serious contender.

Already, Medina has been forced to explain away a comment she made -- "stepping off into secession may in fact be a bloody war" -- in support of states’ rights at a rally last year on the Capitol steps. (Asked about her remark during the second debate, Medina said she opposes Texas’ secession from the union, something Perry hinted at last year in his own nod to the Tea Party folks.)

Still, Medina, the former chairwoman of the Wharton County GOP, has already achieved far more than anyone expected of her campaign. Failing a successful run for governor, many see her as well positioned to replace her congressman, Ron Paul, whenever he steps down. Paul is one of Medina’s key supporters.

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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Photo: Medina. Credit: Associated Press.

UPDATED at 8 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said the late Edward M. Kennedy held his Massachusetts Senate set for nearly a quarter century. Kennedy held the seat for nearly half a century.

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