No one should be surprised that Hutchison has a substantial lead over Perry. She has always polled better than he has. What is surprising—according to the Hutchison camp—is that his support among Republican primary voters is down 10% since his 2006 race. (I will ask the Perry forces for their evaluation of this poll next week.)
When you’re down by 24 points, you can’t just run on your record. Perry is going to have to engage in a big-time negative campaign. It is always a risk for a man to attack a woman. But he can’t let her build a wall around herself with her personality, which is her strong suit. He is going to have to define her as being way out of step with the views of Republican primary voters. “Democrat Lite” is the phrase that the Perry forces are already using. He will try to turn her strength – her ability to deliver federal money to Texas – into a weakness by portraying her as a spender. They’ll call her Kay “Bailout” Hutchison (she voted for the financial bailout but not for the automobile version). Negative campaigns are risky business. This year, at least, they seemed to turn voters off. But that may be exactly what Perry needs to do. He wants to get the March Republicans into the primary and keep the November Republicans away.
Redefining Hutchison is not the only thing that a negative campaign can accomplish. The Perry team wants to make this race as unpleasant for Hutchison as possible. The easiest (and maybe the only) way for them to win this race is not to win it on election day, but to win it on filing deadline day, by driving Hutchison out of the race. Hutchison has backed away from two previous races against Perry. That is the biggest problem that she has right now. The hidden battle of the race is the one Perry and Hutchison are waging for the loyalties of the major Republican players and donors. Hutchison has to persuade them that she is in it for keeps this time, and until she formally announces her candidacy, there are still going to be a lot of doubters out there.