Have you noticed that no criticism of Rick Perry seems to stick? It is very clear now that nothing Hutchison has done has moved numbers, except maybe to reduce her own. He nails her on the bailout and it sticks like flypaper. (Does flypaper still exist?) She tries to nail him on balancing the budget with stimulus dollars and creating a $4 billion hole, and poof! The charge evaporates into the air. Balancing the budget with stimulus dollars (1) increased state spending and (2) added to the structural deficit that has been created on Perry’s watch. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad Perry took the money. But it ought to be controversial with fiscal conservatives. It doesn’t appear to be. Perry is just blessed, that’s all. Nothing sticks. Meanwhile, the bailout worked. The government and the taxpayers are going to come out ahead. The financial system has been stabilized. Her vote (and Cornyn’s) for the bailout was the responsible thing to do. It’s killing her. Oh, I almost forgot. Perry, as the chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as the chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association, wrote that letter to Congress urging them to vote for the bailout: “We strongly urge Congress to leave partisanship at the door and pass an economic recovery package…It is time for Washington, D.C. to step up, be responsible and do what’s in the best interest of American taxpayers and our economy.” Perry’s comeback, that they were saying, “Don’t spend all the money,” is woefully lame. The letter says no such thing. That letter is a smoking gun. Perry was for the bailout. Nobody cares. I can’t think of anything Hutchison can do at this point—any message, any program, any strategy—to turn this race around. Some of this is her own fault, her inability to articulate why she wants to be governor and what she would do if elected. Some of it is her campaign’s fault, by having her be relentlessly negative against Perry, and in the process devaluing their greatest asset—Hutchison’s personality—and positioning her as a shrew. Still, I’m not sure any of that made any difference. At some point, Perry deserves a lot of credit. He is one of the best natural politicians Texas has ever produced. He didn’t have any of George W. Bush’s advantages, but he has great political instincts, a willingness to take risks, and an inexhaustible appetite for campaigning. In the course of interviewing for the cover story I wrote about Perry and his prospects for seeking the Republican presidential nomination, I learned that Perry campaigns at least four days a week, that he spends little time in Austin, and that he spends nights surfing the Internet for articles confirming his conservative political theology that he can send out to his huge e-mail list. Consider that in appointments alone he has befriended close to 10,000 people. He must have met a majority of the state’s 8,000 Republican precinct chairs. He’s a great believer in social networking, and the number of people he can reach with the push of the “send” button must be enormous. A lot of these people are new supporters who help balance out the “Perry fatigue” voters Hutchison is counting on. He does have some formidable constituencies against him: the Farm Bureau and the anti-tollroad crowd, Aggies who are angry with his meddling, Metroplex suburbanites who are mad about his support of new coal plants, elements of the education community (especially retired teachers), and a lot of voters who just plain don’t like him. I just don’t see this as adding up to enough votes to overcome the Republican base. Even if Hutchison should get into a runoff with Perry, he will be the heavy favorite. Only hardcore partisans come back to vote in runoffs. That’s his folks. I suppose there is always the chance that Hutchison may hit on a winning theme, or that Perry will make a major gaffe, but unless something changes, her best shot at this point is a pandemic of Perry fatigue. If it occurs, it will occur late, in the last weekend before March 2. One caveat: Everything I have written applies only to the Republican primary race. A general election is a different matter. It brings into play entirely different issues: electricity rates, home insurance rates, and support (or the lack thereof) for public schools, to name a few. Perry is certainly teflon for now, but there is no guarantee that his protective coating can make it through a general election.
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