The Republican race for governor has mostly been a heavyweight showdown, with the senior U.S. senator from Texas trying to knock out the state's longest serving governor. But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry aren't the only Republicans in the race.
Fiery GOP activist and gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina, who has strong libertarian views and does not rule out seceding from the union, could affect the contest, even if she loses, as experts anticipate.
But Medina is not swayed by the experts.
"I feel it in my gut," said Medina, a registered nurse from Wharton, just south of Houston. "I am not quitting. I am not taking my foot off the pedal. Not one inch."
Medina has been waging a low-budget guerrilla war against Perry and Hutchison -- at the last reporting in July, she hadn't broken past $50,000 -- using the Internet, social media and the heady enthusiasm of her volunteers to raise her profile. The strategy paid off last week, when Medina snagged a coveted spot in the upcoming statewide televised debate in Denton on Thursday with the two GOP stars.
That has caused her Internet traffic to spike and brought more attention to her candidacy. Analysts say she still has virtually no chance of actually winning, but her attacks on the establishment candidates could take a toll on them and the party, and if she gets enough traction she could trigger a gubernatorial runoff election.
Polls have shown Medina in the single digits, but even a few points in a close race could be enough to spark a runoff. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in the March 2 primary, the top two contenders have to face off on April 13.
If there is a runoff, experts believe it will again be Perry and Hutchison, engaging in a costly do-over played out over an intense six weeks. Medina has a different scenario in mind: she gets into a runoff with Perry and wins in a David-vs-Goliath battle.
Medina, who home-schooled two children, packs a pistol in her car, but does not have a concealed-weapons license because she says she doesn't believe she needs one.
She cherishes libertarian ideas but is a take-no-prisoners conservative Republican. She wants to abolish property taxes and replace them with an expanded sales tax. Like Perry, she also has made the federal government the whipping post of her campaign, saying Washington is encroaching too much in citizens' lives and overstepping its constitutional limits on health care, spending, environmental regulations and other policies.
Perry grabbed headlines last year when he suggested Texans might want to secede from the United States if Washington "continues to thumb their nose" at its citizens. But the governor has said he would never advocate breaking off from the United States.
Medina takes a harder line. She says she'd restore Texas "sovereignty" by fighting Uncle Sam with executive orders and legal action. If that doesn't work, she says she won't rule out pulling a page out of Civil War history with a move to secede from the nation.
"It will be up to the people. I don't think you can rule it out," Medina told The Associated Press. "I'm going to work really hard not to take us down the path."
Though she's critical of both Hutchison and Perry, Medina sees her main rival as Perry and she reserves her harshest remarks for the governor.
Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said Medina is likely to draw support from voters "out of Perry's right flank." But he predicts Medina will get no more than 5 or 6 percentage points as voters pick between the much better-known Republican candidates.
If the three-way race sparks a runoff, Perry and Hutchison will have to raise and spend more money and compete for a smaller pool of voters who are interested enough in the race to return a second time to the polls.
Mark Jones, political scientist at Rice University in Houston, said a runoff could help Democrats by keeping the intramural Republican brawl in the headlines. He still gives Perry the advantage in a second round against Hutchison but says unpredictable things could happen in the course of a new election.
"There's a whole host of things that could go wrong in the state government that people could blame Perry for," Jones said. "But it's still only six weeks."