Suddenly, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is on the stump and on a mission to round up support for a 2010 run for governor against longtime incumbent Rick Perry.
And Perry, an aggressive campaigner who's never lost an election, is taking her challenge seriously. He's using his bully pulpit while the Texas Legislature is in session to push new proposals, showcase his record and shore up support among social conservatives in the Republican base.
A full year before the GOP primary, the race is on.
"I think that we have seen negative campaigns run by Gov. Perry in the past," Hutchison said before gathering her supporters last week at a daylong strategy session in Austin. "I think that's why we need new leadership. I think people are looking for positive, happy warriors. And I'm a positive, happy warrior."
She said she will formally announce her candidacy this summer.
The hard-charging Perry seems to revel in the re-election fight, though he won't talk much himself about Hutchison and keeps suggesting she may not run at all. He says he wants to keep concentrating on the legislative session.
"Until I get a filed candidate against me, I'd just as soon not have to go take the time to be dealing with that," Perry said.
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But he is dealing with it. Perry fired up hundreds at an anti-abortion rally at the Capitol the same day as Hutchsion's strategy session on Jan. 24, a cold, blustery day when even his overcoat couldn't keep the chill away. He sat through a number of speeches and songs following his own remarks and lingered to work the crowd afterward.
Hutchison formed an "exploratory committee" for a run for governor. However, the fundraising disclosures she must file with the Texas Ethics Commission are the same as those for a committed candidate. Candidates do not have to file party paperwork to get on the primary ballot until January 2010.
Both Hutchison and Perry have amassed millions of dollars to spend on the GOP primary, which may well determine the next governor. A Democratic candidate has not yet emerged. Two of the party's biggest names -- former Comptroller John Sharp and Houston Mayor Bill White -- say they plan to run for Hutchison's Senate seat when she steps down.
The governor likes to leave campaign attacks to his aides. His spokesman dubbed Hutchison "Kay Bailout" for her support of the first federal bailout package of the financial industry. Perry frequently chastises the federal government for increased spending, lack of action on border security and slow response to hurricanes. That indirectly casts Hutchison as part of out-of-touch Washington, D.C.
"It looks like he's running a very strong race, but of course he's just begun to fight," said political science professor Jerry Polinard of University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. "He's managed to put himself into the public eye quite a bit in the last couple of months."
Only 39 percent of Texas general election voters backed Perry in 2006, but it was enough to put him on top in the four-way race. Perry's goal for the moment is to court the social conservatives who are his traditional backers and reliable Texas Republican primary voters, Polinard said.
"He's touching all the bases," Polinard said, adding that Hutchison has work to do with the party faithful. Although Hutchison is highly popular in Texas, some conservatives have not liked her support for abortion rights and embryonic cell research. "In terms of the hard-core base of the party, she's considered to be somewhat soft."
Hutchison hinted that she expects Perry will run a rough campaign against her. Those close to Perry say she's probably right.
"Every race Perry has won has been a rough-and-tumble affair. Senator Hutchison has yet to endure something like that," said Robert Black, a public affairs consultant and former Perry aide who remains close to the governor. He said Perry is at his best when he's geared up for campaign fight.
Hutchison is trying to convince Texans it will be time for new leadership in 2011, after Perry's two full terms and part of the unfinished term he served when George W. Bush resigned in December 2000 to become president. Perry, a former lieutenant governor, agriculture commissioner and legislator, is the state's longest-serving governor.
"The tone in Austin needs to be improved, and we need leadership. And getting ready for this 21st century I think we're slow out of the blocks," said Patrick Oxford, one of Hutchison's statewide organization chairmen. He said GOP leaders in Austin haven't worked as well together under Perry as they did under Bush.
"I don't think he's been a tone-setter, put it that way," said Oxford, who worked with Perry to support Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Oxford was Giuliani's national campaign chairman, and Perry endorsed Giuliani.
Hutchison, a U.S. senator since 1993, is highlighting her disagreements with Perry over his now minimized Trans-Texas Corridor toll road network.
Both candidates say they want to protect landowners from eminent domain abuses. Perry is proposing a state constitutional amendment to safeguard land rights. Hutchison reminded the Texas Farm Bureau this past week that she's been the group's longtime friend and that she wants the state to address diminished land access caused when eminent domain takes nearby property. Perry got crossways with farmers in 2007 when he vetoed a bill that addressed diminished access.
Abortion is sure to be a major issue in the primary. Perry opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger. Hutchison has said she supports abortion rights before a fetus is viable outside of the mother's body. She says she favors existing abortion restrictions and wants to reduce the number of abortions.
In the money race, Hutchison held a lead at the end of December after transferring $7.9 million from her federal campaign account into her state fund, meaning the money can be used on a gubernatorial campaign. Perry had $6.6 million in the bank.
Hutchison can continue to raise money all spring, but Perry is barred from collecting any more campaign cash until after the legislative session ends in June because he is a state official.
Perry needs to have a successful session this year, his last regular session before 2010.
This week, in an address to the Legislature, he emphasized his track record of luring businesses to Texas and holding down spending. He said Texas is in better shape than most states because of those actions, and he urged legislators to keep putting millions of dollars into job creation funds he oversees.
"Texas is strong because we aggressively play offense," Perry said.