Republican infighting is getting nasty early in Texas' gubernatorial primary race - a bellwether indicating whether the party will enhance its electoral fortunes by tacking center or right, or devour itself and raise the prospects for Democrats in the reddest of red states.
Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a conservative stalwart and a leader of anti-spending "tea party" protests, ironically has fired an opening salvo by casting his lot with moderate Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's bid to unseat Gov. Rick Perry.
"Rick Perry has had 10 years as governor to get done what he wanted to get done - and he has got nothing done, which is a perfect indication of what he wanted to get done," Mr. Armey told The Washington Times in a phone interview from a tea party rally in Miami.
"The governor has taken a lot of colorful and entertaining political positions, but I don't recall his ever being truly excited about any policy matters or positions."
Mr. Armey said he doesn't always agree with Mrs. Hutchison but that she is a doer and not just a talker.
Incensed by Mr. Armey's blasts, Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner snapped, "Done nothing? Under Gov. Perry's leadership, Texas has implemented the most sweeping tort reform in the nation, cut taxes, protected private property rights and cut general revenue spending twice."
The governor's chief campaign consultant, Dave Carney, said Mr. Armey's stance appears to be fallout from an earlier spat. Mr. Perry canceled a state contract with the lobbying firm Mr. Armey represented after it signed on to offer similar advice on military base closings for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In a March 21, 2004, report in the Dallas Morning News, Mr. Perry cited a conflict-of-interest clause in the contract with Mr. Armey's firm.
"The two candidates seem not to care for each other, and the race seems quite likely to get bitter and personal," said Andrew Karch, a University of Texas professor on government.
Critics say Mr. Perry - the lieutenant governor who took over when George W. Bush moved to the White House in 2001 - failed to lead the charge for mandatory voter identification to prevent fraud, and has turned down only a small fraction of his state's share of President Obama's economic stimulus spending while making it sound as if he were championing conservatism's aversion to all liberal economic pump-priming.
Nevertheless, Mr. Armey's support of Mrs. Hutchison shocks conservatives who regard her as being more center than right and who note she is the self-acknowledged Earmarks Queen of the Hill. She has brought back billions of federal taxpayer dollars to Texas since she entered the Senate in 1983 ($8.7 billion according to her own estimate - which she proudly says demonstrates that she is "effective" for Texas).
In contrast, Mr. Perry, 59, has long held a place deep in the heart of conservatives of all stripe for his reputation as a tight-fisted, tax-cutting foe of abortion and gay marriage.
When informed that Mr. Armey is supporting Mrs. Hutchison instead of Mr. Perry, American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene delivered an incredulous one-word response: "Why?"
Mr. Miner asks the same question, while insisting that Mr. Perry "has positioned Texas to be better off economically than almost any other state in the country and Perry is the only true conservative in this race."
Likely Republican voters in the state appear to agree. Though Mrs. Hutchison has an edge of 40 percent to 38 percent overall and leads among moderate and liberal Republican voters in the latest Rasmussen poll, taken last month, Mr. Perry leads among self-identified conservative voters. Though Mrs. Hutchison's 2-percentage-point advantage is well within the poll's error margin, it does represent a 10-point gain for her over her lagging placement in the Rasmussen mid-July poll.
The race is for the base in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, both sides think, even though Texas campaign law opens it to Democrats and independents. But just to be sure, the Perry side wants to frame it as Texas vs. Washington as well as right versus center.
Mrs. Hutchison's biggest problem may be in getting the Texas GOP base, in the age of tea party rebellion, to applaud - or overlook - her for contributing to Washington's 20-year spending spree by bringing the bacon home to Texas.
"Earmarks will be a huge issue in this primary next year," said Merrill Matthews, resident scholar at the Dallas-based Institute for Policy Innovation.
Mr. Perry's problem may be in persuading his own base of values-voters and libertarian-leaners to ignore his having issued an executive order requiring teenage girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer. Though the state legislature later overturned it, the order had mandated that all young schoolgirls in Texas receive state-purchased doses of a vaccine made by a pharmaceutical firm in which former Perry aides have a vested interest. When critics on the right raised the question of whether it was a case of cronyism or good shepardism, Mr. Perry pleaded the latter.
"I am somewhat surprised that Hutchison hasn't gotten, or attempted to get, more mileage out of Perry's vaccine order," Mr. Karch said. "It's one of the few episodes during which he was out of step with the GOP primary base. It might be a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' since it happened in 2007."