Texas Gov. Rick Perry sought the GOP nomination for an unprecedented third four-year term Tuesday in a battle against another Republican heavyweight, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and a third candidate drawing support from the state's Tea Party movement.
Angry protest voters backing conservative activist Debra Medina could force the governor and Hutchison into an April 13 runoff election, if no candidate gets a majority.
The courtly Hutchison was once seen as the candidate who could hand Perry the first loss of his long political career, but the governor, a darling of social conservatives, emerged as the front-runner.
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Perry painted the senator as too entrenched in Washington politics -- something Hutchison acknowledged worked against her in the current environment.
The GOP winner will face the Democratic nominee in November. Former Houston Mayor Bill White was favored in the Democratic primary over Houston hair care magnate Farouk Shami and five others.
Perry and Hutchison competed to show just how Texan they are: They donned cowboy hats and Western wear and declared their devotion to the Lone Star State.
Already the state's longest-serving governor, Perry was looking for another four-year term. Hutchison argued that Perry had become arrogant in office and that he let cronyism creep into government, permitting lobbyists to take turns serving in his office and punishing appointees who did not side with him.
Hutchison initially said she would step down from the Senate by the end of 2009 and focus full-time on her run for governor. But she later changed her mind and said she had to stay in Washington to battle President Barack Obama and the Democrats on health care.
Her continued presence in the nation's capital gave Perry more ammunition to cast her as a congressional insider.
"It definitely hurt, but it was not my doing," Hutchison said last week, discussing her decision to stay in the Senate. "It was the progress of health care reform. The game change for me is when health care kept being put off."
On Tuesday, she said voters will agree with her that it's time for Perry to leave office.
"People are very excited about this race, and they know Governor Perry is trying to stay too long," Hutchison said outside a Dallas polling place.
Perry has exuded confidence in the final days of the race. "I'm as comfortable that I have as good or better a campaign team as I've ever put together," he said.
On Tuesday, Perry administered the enlistment oath to 24 military recruits in Dallas as part of a Texas Independence Day celebration.
"He's got my vote, even before I came here," said Rhonda Kelly, of Royse City, northeast of Dallas, whose son was sworn into the Army.
Medina, a businesswoman and registered nurse from Wharton, near Houston, has strong libertarian views. She served as her county's Republican chairwoman but has never run for statewide office before.
She appeared to be building steam earlier this year, but she may have suffered a setback after saying there are "some very good arguments" that the U.S. government was involved in the 2001 terror attacks. The remark came in response to a question from nationally syndicated radio talk show host Glenn Beck.
Medina later released a statement saying she did not believe the government played a role in the attacks. But some voters said they withdrew their support because of the comments.
Still, Medina could force a runoff, and some predicted that the Tea Party movement would have a big impact on Tuesday's outcome.
Kevin Merritt, a 31-year-old software developer from Frisco, said he considered voting for Perry before finally casting his ballot for Medina.
"I'm a pretty conservative guy," Merritt said, adding that he liked Medina's goal to lower property taxes and disliked Perry's support of a now-dead project to build a huge system of toll roads.
But other voters who support the Tea Party movement said they did not plan to vote for Medina.
"I tend to like a lot of things about the Tea Party movement, but I'm just not wild about Medina. Perry rubs me the wrong way," said Jay Portersfield, 37, of Murphy, north of Dallas, who voted for Hutchison.
Also on the ballot Tuesday were some key Republican races for the influential State Board of Education, which adopts curriculum standards that wield significant influence over the content of textbooks nationwide.
Several Republicans were trying to unseat some of the board's most prominent Christian conservatives. The board has become a battleground for social conservatives and liberal watchdogs, and each accuses the other of imposing its ideological agendas on the state's 4.8 million K-12 students.
Early voting over the past two weeks was high compared with the last gubernatorial primary year, in 2006, but it was unclear whether that would translate into high turnout overall.
It appeared that the GOP gubernatorial primary was driving much of the early turnout. Sixty-two percent of the early ballots cast were in the Republican primary.
Associated Press writers John McFarland and Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas, Michelle Roberts in San Antonio and Christopher Sherman in McAllen contributed to this report.