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Texas Governor Rick Perry readies for a GOP shootout in a primary

May 17, 2009 |  7:59 pm

Texas Governor Rick Perry

Our veteran political colleague Mark Barabak recently spent some time in Texas talking with major players in the unusual Republican gubernatorial political drama beginning to unfold there. We asked him to comb through his notes with his ubiquitous pencil and give The Ticket an inside look at his news story, which is also available now on this site:

Rick "Secession" Perry vs. Kay "Bailout" Hutchison. That's the snarky shorthand for the (insert Texas-size metaphor) shaping up in the Lone Star State for the GOP primary next March.

Perry is the two-term, 59-year-old Republican governor. He created quite the stir last month by seeming to encourage the notion of a breakaway Texas republic He's facing a rare intra-party challenge from U.S. Sen. Hutchison, who's 65 and has coveted the governor's chair for many of those years.

It's exceedingly rare for a sitting senator to challenge a governor of his or her own party.

But these two have never particularly liked each other and the word around Texas is that Hutchison agreed to hold off from challenging Perry in 2006 because he swore to Republican donors and other party bigs he would step down rather than seek an unprecedented third term in 2010.

Perry, who ascended to the job when George W. Bush resigned to become president, is already....

...the longest-serving governor in Texas history and another win could put him in position to seek national office.

Perry denied making any such promise. "If anyone is saying that, they're obviously reading something into conversations," Perry said in a recent interview on a sauna-like afternoon in Houston. "I don't recall ever having said, 'I am not going to run.' "

"I love Texas and I love this job," he went on. "I am very passionate about it."

The two candidates have been relatively restrained up to now, each waiting for the legislative session to end in June. Hutchison waiting things out in Washington, Perry hunkered down in Austin.

But this is one political primary race that promises to be expensive -- running into the tens of millions of dollars -- and most probably very ugly. Both sides say there's at least a decent chance one of them will blink and step aside, but they insist it won't be their candidate

Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

The strategies are clear. Perry, fighting voter fatigue and coming off a weak reelection in 2006, hopes to tap a throbbing vein of anti-Washington sentiment by painting Hutchison, a senator for the past 16 years, as a Beltway insider who long ago lost touch with Texas and its values.

The Kay "Bailout" Hutchison moniker is one Perry aides use to commemorate her support for the fiscal rescue package rushed through Congress last fall. Most Texans hated it.

Hutchison for her part is unholstering the trusty time-for-a-change message and suggesting Perry is more devoted to getting himself reelected than accomplishing anything of significance in office.

To be sure, Perry has never been a favorite among the Texas country club set and his secession comment at an Austin "tea party" protest -- which he said was purposely wrenched out of context -- helped feed that yahoo image.

The Republican primary, open to all comers, typically draws about 600,000 voters, most from the GOP’s far right wing. To prevail, Hutchison almost certainly has to expand that turnout, luring some of the many Texans who, polls suggest, have had their fill of Perry.

That’s the calculus on paper, anyway. 

One of the best things the governor has going for him, his strategists believe, is the fact he's survived a number of rough campaigns, weathering tens of millions of dollars in negative TV ads and, after switching parties in 1989, knocking off a Texas legend: the wisecracking agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower.

Hutchison, as even her supporters concede, has not faced a tough race since her first unsuccessful try for Congress, way back in 1982.

 “Most of his elections Perry is seen as the underdog, or in for the fight of his life,” said Ken Luce, who ran Perry’s campaign against Hightower, a historic upset that people still discuss nearly 20 years later. “He always wins because he outfights, outhustles and outworks everybody else.”

(UPDATE: Mark's second Texas take, on the background of Perry and how he got where he is, is now posted over here.)

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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Photo: Harry Cabluck / Associated Press; Office of Sen. Hutchison.