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
Hope Perry wins this one.
She has become a political creation by Washington DC
Her local ads talk about her not voting w/Obama's stimulus plan...yet she voted for bailout-city while Bush was in office.
This is what we mean when we say there's not much difference between the Dims and RINOS
Perry is yet another typical GOP thug.... whatever happened to that arson case he buried?
Choosing a conservative candidate is like choosing a flesh wound. Even if one isn't as severe as the other, it's still an annoying, painful mess that you just want to disappear.
PERRY is going to be the WORST enemy in Washington if he gets elected!!! How can he keep TYING Hutchison to Washington and he's running for the same position??? He's a 'far-right" tea-bagging maniac that 'should not' be running for office at all since his mission is to secede from it!!!!! Such a LOSER!!!
I am a Democrat and since a Democrat most likely WOULD NOT be elected in TEXAS, Hutchison would be the BETTER pick. Hmm, maybe it would be an UPSET and the Democrat would win – just like MA!!!! Yes We Can!!
Perry the Seccessionist. What a loser.
They are both tied to the republic of Texas which is likely worse than Washington.
Perry is too radical to ever make it on the national scene. We have wised up to the ways of he good ole boys from Texas.
Better keep him in Texas.
Remember George Wallace when he tried to go national? Forget the past and relive it.
Hutchinson really should move to DC. She long ago forgot what it was to be an independent minded, sefl-sufficient individual with ideas that were good for the Nation not for herself. She has become the problem and needs to be pushed totally out of Texas politics.
If Perry wins, the soul of the Texas republican party will be a secessionist.
Preference for a Tea Party candidate, and a tie to Washington seen as a negative: what does that tell us about November elections?
What are we supposed to learn from this?
It disturbs me that a person sympathetic to secessionism wants to lead the country For a good 100 years we didn't hear much about that, and now Sarah Palin and Rick Perry even dream of occupying the White House. What for, one wonders, if they don't believe in the Union?
Actually, this should have been a bigger contest than it was but KBH only threw softballs up until Friday then her ads took on a harder edge.
If she had been engaged full time and hit as hard back as Pompadour Perry has hit her, she may have had a chance.
But since I want to see them both use Red money in a runoff and because we have a open primary day, I will vote for KBH, and hope she gets enough Dem "crossover" votes to throw them into a runoff.
I do think White will have a better chance against Pompadour than Kay, in the general(that secession speech repeated 9,876 times between now and November ought to give White some traction)so it is a win/win for this Dem!
Every Republican on this planet says they're a contender for the WhiteHouse. Get real, Republicans are a bunch of angry thugs.
Yeah thats what the country needs is another TEXAN in the White House ! NOT !!!!!
Meanwhile, we should tie Perry to a military prison for wanting Texas to secede from the United States. Texas doesn't need a nut like Perry as Governor.
The republican party has split, pure and simple, the Party of Eisenhower is the party of Kay and the party of John Birch is alive and well in the Tea party right wing ultraconservative neocons such as Perry . Ronald Reagan is now doin' wheelies in his grave
Being tied to Sarah Palin is about as bad as it can get so tying Hutchison to Washington is hardly as bad a s Perry being tied to a hate promoter
Perry is going to win down there today. It's really indicative of what's wrong with the right-wing right now. On the one hand you had Kay Bailey-Hutchinson, who is a good experienced, level headed statesperson. On the other hand you have a Rick Perry, who is an angry, hard line, hot head, ideolog, who even suggested the possibility of secession.
The right-wing is white-guys-gone-wild right now. They're like a bunch of children acting out in order to get their way.
So what. If Hutchison is tied to Washington, Perry is tied to the lunatic fringe of his party. It's time for Texas to have a governor that the rest of the country doesn't consider crazy.
Yes she is screwed.I live in Texas and the people that follow perry hate the american government thanks to him because that's what he is all about.This guy is a crook.If he had his way Texas would not be part of the U.S. And the loons here in Texas love him for it.
Go home, Perry. We want Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Governors mansion. Perry has been there long enough!
Perry is one WACKED politician. Texans better WAKE UP. This mad-lunatic is going to SUCK you and your state dry before you know what hit you.
Texans are really so predictable, they love being led like a bunch of clueless cattle by their Governor who exploits them and smiles in their faces while stabbing Texans in their back the whole time.
Texans DESERVE everything they get by re-electing this nut-case.
Paying attention GOPers? It's not the Dems people are angry with: it's ALL of them. Hope you enjoy the fruits of your "if we're going down, we're taking you with us" strategery. It's doing us all sooooo much good.
Hutchinson told a small crowd in Plano, "Perry isn't really a conservative" more proof that of the Republican Civil war.