Dallas, Texas (CNN) – When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, began her campaign to unseat Gov. Rick Perry early last year, Perry was thought to be in deep trouble.
Hutchison had been elected statewide three times by solid margins. She had loads of cash, strong favorable ratings and a comfortable lead in the polls. Perry, seeking a third full term, had already been in Austin for more than a decade - longer than any Texas governor.
A lengthy feature in Texas Monthly described the looming fight as "the 'Thrilla in Manila' of Texas politics." National pundits billed the primary as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Perry, the narrative went, was the arch-conservative. Hutchison offered a more moderate approach.
Fast-forward to March 2010, and Hutchison is limping into Tuesday's primary hoping to scrape together enough votes to force Perry into a six-week runoff. Perry, meanwhile, is being floated as White House contender in 2012.
What changed? Unfortunately for Hutchison, a three-term senator, conservative grassroots anger directed at Washington exploded over the last year. Hutchison has been mostly helpless against the anti-establishment headwind, a fact acknowledged even by her supporters and campaign advisers.
"The climate this year was just really bad for Hutchison," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. "Because of the anger out there, Perry was able to say from the beginning that she is Washington, she is big government, she is higher taxes. He was able to say, 'I am Texas, I have kept taxes low, I have kept the government off your back.' That threw her off her stride."
According to February poll conducted by Blum and Weprin Associates for five Texas newspapers, 45 percent of likely GOP voters support Perry, while 29 percent back Hutchison.
Perry needs at least 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher. Most observers believe Perry will win the nomination. The only question Tuesday is whether he can get there without a runoff.
The February survey also indicated that 17 percent of primary voters prefer a third candidate, Republican activist Debra Medina, a favorite of Tea Party activists.
Medina, a relative unknown, surged in the polls after an impressive debate performance in January but lost momentum only weeks later when, in a radio interview with conservative talk shot host Glenn Beck, she waffled when asked if the U.S. government played a role in the 9/11 attacks.
The Blum and Weprin poll was conducted before her stumble. If Medina fades, her conservative supporters could drift towards Perry and help him surpass that crucial 50 percent threshold.
Perry, an adept campaigner with a knack for adjusting his message to the political climate of the moment, has embraced the role of conservative crusader against an overreaching government. He grabbed national headlines last year when he suggested at a Tea Party rally in Austin that Texas might consider seceding from the Union.
The governor and his team have painted Hutchison as a chronic earmarker and dubbed her "Kay Bailout" for voting in favor of the unpopular Wall Street bailout in 2008.
"When you have spent the last 17 years of your life as a United States senator in Washington D.C., when you voted for the bailout that in hindsight was an absolute atrocity, then you must go to the people of Texas an explain to them why you are not a creature of the Washington culture," Perry told CNN.
Though Perry has ramped up his conservative rhetoric over the last year, he rejected the suggestion that Republicans will be divided heading into the general election against the likely Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White.
"We are all on the same team," he said after a campaign event Monday in Dallas. "This is like an intramural scrimmage. The big game is in the fall."
Hutchison has fought back against Perry's charges, noting that the governor backed a statewide business tax in 2006 and used federal stimulus money to complete his most recent budget.
During a stop Sunday at a Plano burger joint, Hutchison told a small crowd of supporters that Perry isn't really a conservative. The governor's decision to take stimulus money, she said, has left Texas "in a hole."
"I am a conservative and I help people and I work with people, and don't posture against Washington at the same time I am taking the money," Hutchison argued. "It's a matter of honesty and integrity."
Hutchison's other main argument against Perry is that she would be a better candidate in a general election because she can attract moderate and independent voters. It's a hard sell, considering that no Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since 1994.
Jillson, the political scientist, said Hutchison has failed to offer a compelling case as to why she should abandon the Senate, where her approval rating among Republicans remains high.
It's a sentiment echoed by Texas voters like Glee Huebner, a Perry supporter from Dallas who appreciates Hutchison's work in the Senate.
"It worries me that she would quit in the middle of her term," she said. "It's necessary to keep as many of our good people in Washington as we can."
– CNN's Candy Crowley and Mike Roselli contributed to this report