The swirling force of Texas politics

Gov. Perry Encounters String of Setbacks

By KELLEY SHANNON
|  Friday, Nov 20, 2009  |  Updated 10:09 AM CDT
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Gov. Perry Encounters String of Setbacks

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What should be Gov. Rick Perry's time to shine and shore up support for an unprecedented third term has turned lately into a series of missteps and accidents that are rare for such an experienced politician.

Whether they are coincidences, a show of uncharacteristic sloppiness by the Perry campaign or spin from the opposition, they seem to have given at least a temporary boost to challenger U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose aides note every Perry setback.

"It's like when it rains it pours," said Bill Miller, a consultant who works for neither candidate but whose company's political arm has contributed to Perry. He called Perry's recent problems a "plague of bad incidents" but said they don't signal a breakdown in Perry's usually disciplined campaign. "It kind of raises questions, and, really, the beneficiary is always the opponent."

Last month, Hutchison staffers videotaped the governor appearing to question whether Texas is in a recession. Perry says the quip, designed to get a laugh from a crowd of suburban Houston business leaders, was taken out of context when the Hutchison camp circulated it on YouTube.

Two weeks ago, his big campaign Web announcement fell prey to a technology meltdown, and many supporters couldn't tune in to watch; the Perry campaign says it was the work of a politically motivated computer hacker and the FBI is investigating.

And Perry's apparent attempts to keep his appointees in line during the campaign has been seen as heavy-handed. Perry drew criticism for replacing university regents who supported Hutchison and for replacing members of a forensic science commission who were about to examine evidence that suggests Texas may have executed an innocent man on Perry's watch.

In a glaring slap at Perry, the Texas Farm Bureau last week toured the state with Hutchison endorsing her and chiding Perry, the former agriculture commissioner, for his Trans-Texas Corridor toll road network and for failing to protect property rights.

Perry's campaign denies he's lost any ground.

"If this is a football game, 32-1 would be a blowout," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner, referring to Perry's endorsements from business groups and social conservatives.

Miner said Hutchison had disappointing months in the spring and summer when she didn't offer "one new policy initiative." Now, he said, "you have a campaign, the senator's campaign, demonstrating that they'll do anything at any cost to try to win the election."

Hutchison's campaign said the governor has only himself to blame.

"I think he is an unbelievably arrogant person. And when you are as arrogant as Rick Perry is, you are prone to say and do very flippant things," said Hutchison campaign manager Terry Sullivan. "Now they're being held accountable for what they say and what they do."

At least in public, Perry doesn't appear to let a setback get him down for long. He is known to sometimes chew out an aide over a mistake, but he also gives pep talks to staffers and says he views the race as a lengthy process that will turn his way in the end.

Perry has never lost an election since he first ran for the Legislature in 1984. As lieutenant governor, he ascended to the governor's office when Gov. George W. Bush was elected president in 2000. He was re-elected in 2002 and 2006, but captured only 39 percent of the vote in the most recent, four-way race.

He has been known for occasional verbal gaffes. He was ridiculed nationally for suggesting that Texans might get so fed up they might want to secede from the union and once tried to paraphrase a vulgar expression after a radio interview, saying "Adios, mo' fo."'

The Texas Farm Bureau endorsement of Hutchison was a blow that Perry likely long knew was coming. He and the organization have had their disagreements before, dating back to when the farm bureau endorsed Democrat John Sharp over Perry for lieutenant governor in 1998. But the group backed Perry for governor in 2002 and 2006.

The 421,000-member bureau had criticized Perry since his veto of a 2007 eminent domain bill the bureau wanted signed into law.

Perry might have had a chance to win the farmers back, but more eminent domain legislation the bureau wanted died in the Legislature's spring session and Perry didn't include it in a summer special session as the bureau wanted, said Farm Bureau legislative director Steve Pringle.

"If the governor had put the issue of eminent domain on the call of the special session this summer, it would have made our endorsement process a lot more complicated," Pringle said.

The Perry campaign didn't take the blow lightly. It suggested the Texas Farm Bureau backed Hutchison because she voted a year ago for a federal bailout of the financial and insurance industry. The farm bureau, which has a business arm that offers insurance to members, did not receive any bailout money.

To farm bureau officials, that remark just widened the schism between them and the governor.

"We feel like our members will be interested in this race," Pringle said.

Miner said the governor's endorsements from industry groups like the Texas Association of Realtors and social conservatives give him support from likely primary voters and their activist networks. Perry's confidence remains high, he said.

"We believe we continue to have the momentum," Miner said.

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