From left, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Gov. Rick Perry and Debra Medina are seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison called herself the reformer. Activist Debra Medina said she was David to her opponents' Goliath. Gov. Rick Perry touted himself as the protector from Washington's evils and incompetence.
The event hosted by the Harris County Republican Party less than a week before the March 2 primary marked the first time the trio was together at the same venue since their second televised debate a month ago in Dallas.
Appearing before the group in alphabetical order, the candidates broke little new ground.
Hutchison warned of tough economic times looming and said that as governor, she would improve education, work to unclog highways and deal with property taxes she said were skyrocketing along with out-of-control state spending.
"Only a new governor is going to take the approach to deal with these issues and make sure we just don't go through the status quo," said Hutchison, who also renewed calls for term limits for governor and improved ethical standards in government.
Medina stuck by her campaign themes -- supporting gun and property rights and eliminating property taxes -- and tried to separate herself from her two rivals.
"Many of us have been under the misnomer this is a three-way race," she said. "Really it's not. It's a race between a conservative grass-roots Republican activist and two big-government incumbents."
She said Washington has been allowed to "run willy nilly" and that Perry leading Texas "right into a ditch."
"Will you have the courage to do something different?" she asked. "Freedom hangs in the balance."
Incumbent Perry, who received the loudest ovation, thanked Harris County party organizers for arranging "a very intriguing evening," then gave a version of his stump speech that blames Washington for the nation's ills and hails Texas as the nation's best economy.
He said Washington should stop "trying to be all things to all people" and focus on responsibilities such as securing the border, delivering the mail and keeping an excellent military.
"One out of three ain't good enough," he said. "The fact of the matter is until you get our border secure and deliver the mail on time, please don't start telling us how to do everything else."
Perry said he hoped he had earned Texans' confidence.
"Together we can keep our beloved state moving forward as the No. 1 state in America," he said.
Perry, seeking a third full four-year term and already the state's longest-serving governor, held a double-digit lead over Hutchison -- 45 percent to 29 percent -- in a poll released two weeks ago by five major Texas newspapers.
Medina had 17 percent in the same poll, which was taken before she made comments refusing to dismiss theories that the federal government was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. She later revised her remarks but appeared to damage her election bid.
Perry and Medina both have campaigned against Washington politicians. Hutchison is in her third term as a senator.
Hutchison acknowledged this week that Perry's criticism appears to have struck a chord among voters angry with the federal government and bailouts approved by Congress.
Whether planned or coincidental, Hutchison didn't arrive at a VIP reception preceding the event at a Houston Galleria-area hotel until a few minutes after Perry left the room. Medina and Perry were back-to-back at one point, but didn't acknowledge one another. The three were seated far apart at a long table in the center of the hotel ballroom during dinner, separated by numerous people.
Whoever tops the March 2 balloting will need 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff a month later. In November, the GOP nominee will face the winner of the seven-person Democratic primary that includes former Houston Mayor Bill White and Houston hair care executive Farouk Shami as the party's best-funded candidates.