With the five-month legislative session and its veto period over, the two heavyweight Republican contenders for the 2010 governor's race apparently feel free to begin the combat for the primary nine months away.
"I'm raising funds again for my campaign ... first time since December," Perry wrote Monday on Twitter. Perry could not collect contributions this year during the legislative session that ran from mid-January until June 1.
Money-raisers for Perry and Hutchison will be in high gear until the end of June, the deadline for donations that will appear on July campaign finance reports, closely watched as a barometer of which candidate can claim an early lead.
At this point, the candidates need to get voters to pay attention. A Texas Lyceum poll, a nonpartisan survey conducted by University of Texas and released Wednesday, showed 45 percent of Republicans were undecided. Of the likely GOP primary voters who said they made up their minds, 33 percent supported Perry and 21 percent backed Hutchison. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
The March 2010 Republican primary race is projected to cost tens of millions of dollars, and the winner will be the heavy favorite in the general election that November.
Even if Perry trails in money this summer -- a real possibility because he couldn't accept donations all spring but Hutchison could -- he'll likely catch up quickly because of established donors who are willing to give him as much as $100,000 per four-year term, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
The latest news from around North Texas.
"This is a race that will see larger amounts of money spent in the primary, maybe, than in the general election. It's going to be a slugfest between Perry and Hutchison," Jillson said.
The Democratic field was still unformed. Former ambassador Tom Schieffer formally launched his campaign on Wednesday, a day after state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said she'd decided to bow out. Humorist Kinky Friedman, who ran as an independent in 2006, is raising money for a potential run.
Hutchison held an early money lead at the start of this year, with nearly $8 million to Perry's $6.6 million in the bank. Most of Hutchison's total was transferred from her federal campaign account.
Since then, she's been working on more state fundraising, and named John Nau, a Houston businessman and former Perry backer, as her finance chairman. She sent out a fundraising letter that sounded the national Republican theme but referred to Perry in saying, "We simply can't afford this type of leadership negatively defining our party for four more years."
Hutchison is stepping up complaints that the two-term governor is showing "hypocrisy" on issues ranging from property rights to the state's business tax.
"Real leaders don't grandstand on a temporary fix to the problem of their own making. This is a new height of hypocrisy even for Rick Perry," Hutchison spokesman Hans Klingler said in an attack this month, when Perry signed a law revising the business tax that he backed when it was crafted.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the Hutchison accusations ring hollow.
"It's easy to criticize when you've been on the sidelines," Miner said. Perry's camp has plenty of verbal firepower of its own: It will continue to point out Hutchison's long history in Washington, D.C., and link her to federal bailouts and deficit spending, Miner said.
"We'll continue to highlight the differences between someone who's been in Washington and someone like the governor who's been in Texas working to improve the lives of all Texans," Miner said.
Among likely Democratic primary voters questioned in the Texas Lyceum poll, 80 percent were undecided. Friedman led with 10 percent while Schieffer trailed with 6 percent.
Schieffer, a former ambassador under President George W. Bush and brother of CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, told supporters at a Fort Worth elementary school that the Democratic Party "still offers people the best chance to realize their dreams."
Despite the critical words from Hutchison's side, it's not clear her campaign team realizes what a "dog fight" the GOP race will be, Jillson said. To improve her chances Hutchison needs to come to Texas soon to start continuous heavy-hitting campaigning and to lure more moderates and suburban women to the Republican primary, he said.
"When does she come home and really start to fight? I think she needs to do that in August, September at the latest," Jillson said.
Meanwhile, Perry is touring the state holding bill-signing ceremonies for high-profile legislation like hurricane insurance reform and incentives for creating more research universities.
Hutchison's campaign claims the legislative session failed to address serious issues like transportation and property taxes, but Perry contends it was a success. He cites the billions of dollars left in the state's "Rainy Day" savings fund and the replenishment of his job creation accounts that he says spur Texas' economy.
Perry acknowledged he will have to call lawmakers back to Austin for a special session because the Legislature adjourned without voting to continue such key state agencies as the transportation department.
A special session could keep Perry at the Capitol and away from political events. He's allowed to raise campaign money during special sessions. Miner said Perry has allowed already scheduled fundraisers to continue during special sessions but normally doesn't schedule new ones or "personally" ask for money while lawmakers meet.
Perry hasn't said when he will order the 30-day special session.
For the moment, it's time to concentrate on the colossal campaign ahead -- and collecting money.
"Fundraising will be the priority for the next couple of weeks," Miner said.
Associated Press writers April Castro in Austin and Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth contributed to this report.