The Republican primary for governor of Texas is becoming a prototype for the ideological divisions shaking up the GOP around the country.
Rick Perry, who has been governor longer than anyone else in state history, is being challenged in the March 2 primary by a sitting U.S. senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison. And a third candidate in the race, Tea Party favorite Debra Medina, is making a surprisingly strong run. All three are battling for the votes of conservatives, who make up a clear majority of Texas Republicans.
Selling Texas Pride
At the beginning of his political career, Perry was a Democrat -- an Al Gore Democra,t in fact. But for the last 20 years, Perry has made his political fortune in Texas by moving steadily to the right.
At a campaign rally in Houston, Perry was so proud of the Lone Star State's economy, he was about to bust wide open.
"Fact is, Texas is better off than might near any other state I can think of," he said at a rally.
The unemployment rate is over 8 percent, so it's not all peaches and cream. But Texas is limping ahead of many other states. Fifteen thousand people are at this rally -- a huge turnout. But many are here to see Sarah Palin, who is supporting Perry for governor. Although he's the one running for office, Perry warms up the crowd for Palin. The fact that Palin is standing next to him -- and not next to Hutchison -- is all he cares about. Perry's gratitude shines.
"So good to be here in the big old state of Texas. I was just telling Piper, 'Honey, you know where we are today? We're in Alaska's little sister state. Many of us in both of our states, we will proudly cling to our guns and religion," Palin said.
The Incumbent As 'Change' Candidate
The Houston rally provides a window into Perry's current success. Just over a year ago the Texas governor, in office for nearly 10 years, was perceived as stale goods. "Perry fatigue" is what the pollsters called his lackluster numbers.
But then came a recession, followed by the election of President Obama. For conservatives, it was one catastrophe after another. A career politician, Perry could hardly present himself as the agent of political change, but that's exactly what he did. He fast-walked to the front of the Tea Party backlash before any other mainstream conservative politician really understood its importance.
Not long after Obama was elected, Perry said he understood the feelings of certain Texans who wanted secede from the Union. That comment earned him much derision at the national level. But to certain elements of the Texas GOP, Perry's statements proved something important: that Perry understood them.
In the race for governor, Rick Perry campaign's message has been simple: Washington, D.C., is filled with a bunch of big spending losers -- and his opponent, Hutchison, is right at home there. Hutchison has hit back by casting the Texas governor as a puppet of toll road builders.
More Conservative Than Thou
Perry does have a reputation in as a lover of toll roads. Some of these toll road companies have also been financial donors to the governor. This was supposed to be one place where Hutchison could get some traction, but her campaign ad only vaguely alludes to the problem of influence peddling.
Hutchison has not galloped to the front of the race riding the toll road issue. During the campaign, it's come to light that Hutchison herself has taken contributions from the toll road interests.
And this points to a problem her campaign has struggled with: How does the conservative senator differentiate herself from the even more conservative governor, when the group she's trying to appeal to, Texas GOP primary voters, are pretty darn conservative?
In a televised debate, Hutchison tried to answer Perry's accusation that she'd sold her ideological soul while trying to legislate in Washington, D.C.
"Yes, I have been in Congress," she said. "I am fighting against the government takeover of health care. I am fighting against the government encroachment of so many parts of our lives. I'm fighting against new tax increases on energy."
Perry and his campaign staff have taken to calling the senator Kay "Bailout" Hutchison because she voted to rescue the big banks from collapse. And this kind of political sneering has hurt her with the Texas Tea Party crowd. For a politician who wanted to make her moderation a virtue, the Tea Party timing couldn't have been worse.
A Third Prospect
And then there is a political wildcard, Debra Medina, the true Texas Tea Party candidate.
At a political rally in a Chevrolet dealership parking lot, Medina spoke to hundreds of supporters standing in the cold Texas sunshine.
"Private property ownership and gun ownership are the essential elements of freedom," she said.
Medina is a former volunteer for Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Medina is in favor of abolishing all property taxes and is pro-life, with no exceptions. Her economic program begins with abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, which she says will create thousands of jobs.
"We begin to do that by telling the EPA you have no authority here," she said. "Get out of Texas energy. Get out of Texas agriculture. Get out of Texas manufacturing."
Hurt By The Beck Effect?
Medina has amazed the political pundits by going from 4 percent in the polls to the mid-20s, where she began to challenge Hutchison for second place. But then came her appearance on Glenn Beck's radio show 11 days ago. Beck said he'd heard Medina was a "9/11 Truther" and asked if that were so.
"Do you believe the government was any way involved with the bringing down of the World Trade Centers on 9/11?" Beck asked.
"The American people have not seen all of the evidence there. So, I've not taken a position on that," she answered.
Not long after her answer, Beck ended the interview.
Medina's radio interview was treated with the same scorn that Perry enjoyed after his sympathy with would-be secessionists. But this time around, Texas political pundits have been more cautious when trying to predict whether Medina's political fortunes will rise or fall as a result.