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Rick Perry has been the governor of Texas longer than anyone in the state's history, and he wants to stay in the job. But he's got some stiff competition in next Tuesday's Republican primary. His main challenger is the senior senator from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison, though a third candidate is making a surprisingly strong run: Tea Party favorite Debra Medina. From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports on a race that highlights some of the fault lines within the GOP.

WADE GOODWYN: At the beginning of his political career, Rick Perry was a Democrat - an Al Gore Democrat, in fact. But for the last 20 years, the man who is now governor of Texas has made his political fortune by moving steadily to the right.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): Do you want a leader who loves Texas and all it stands for?

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOODWYN: At a campaign rally in Houston, Perry was so proud of the Lone Star State's economy, he was about to bust wide open.

Gov. PERRY: Fact is, Texas is better off than might near any other state I can think of.

GOODWYN: Fifteen thousand people are at this rally, a huge turnout, but many are here to see Sarah Palin, who's supporting Perry for governor. Although he's the one running for office, Perry warms up the crowd for Palin.

Gov. PERRY: Would you join me in giving a great Texas, old-fashioned welcome to one of the nation's top conservative leaders? A wife, a mother, an author, a commentator, ladies and gentlemen, my friend and yours, a great American patriot: Governor Sarah Palin.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Republican Alaska governor): So good to be here in the big old state of Texas. I was just telling Piper: Honey, you know where we are today? We're in Alaska's little sister state.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. PALIN: Many of us in both of our states, we will proudly cling to our guns and religion.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOODWYN: The Houston rally provides a window into Perry's current success. Just over a year ago, the Texas governor, in office nearly 10 years, was perceived as stale goods - Perry fatigue, the pollsters called his lackluster numbers.

But then came a recession, followed by the election of Barack Obama. For conservatives, it was one catastrophe after another. A career politician, Perry could hardly present himself as the agent of political change, but that's exactly what he did. He fast-walked to the front of the Tea Party backlash before any other mainstream conservative politician really understood.

Not long after Obama was elected, Perry said he understood the feelings of certain Texans who wanted to secede from the Union. That comment earned him much derision at the national level. But to certain elements of the Texas GOP, Perry's statements proved something important: It proved Rick Perry understood them.

Gov. PERRY: Who agrees with me that Washington is out of control?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Gov. PERRY: Uh-huh. Whoo!

GOODWYN: In the race for governor, Rick Perry's campaign message has been simple: Washington, D.C. is filled with a bunch of big-spending losers, and his opponent, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is right at home there. Hutchison has hit back by casting the Texas governor as a puppet of toll road builders. Perry does have a reputation in this state as a lover of toll roads.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: A toll is a tax. If a highway is already built, and you toll that highway, you are taxing people twice, and that's not right.

GOODWYN: Some of these toll road companies have also been financial donors to the governor. This was supposed to be one place where Hutchison could really get some traction, but this campaign ad only vaguely alludes to the problem of influence peddling.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: The Hutchison plan: ban tolling of existing roads, end government land grams, prohibit foreign companies from operating toll roads, and audit the good old boys at TxDOT. Kay Bailey Hutchison: She's not messing around.

GOODWYN: But Hutchison has not galloped to the front of the race riding the toll road issue. During the campaign, it's come to light that Hutchison herself has taken contributions from the toll road interests.

And this points to a problem her campaign has struggled with: How does the conservative senator differentiate herself from the even more conservative governor, when the group she's trying to appeal to, Texas GOP primary voters, are pretty darn conservative?

In a televised debate, Hutchison tried to answer Perry's accusation that she'd sold her ideological soul while trying to legislate in Washington, D.C.

Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (Republican, Texas): Yes, I have been in Congress. I am fighting against the government takeover of health care. I am fighting against the government encroachment in so many parts of our lives. I'm fighting against new tax increases on energy.

GOODWYN: Rick Perry and his campaign staff have taken to calling the senator Kay Bailout Hutchison, because she voted to rescue the big banks from collapse. And this kind of political sneering has hurt her with the Texas Tea Party crowd. For a politician who wanted to make her moderation a virtue, the Tea Party timing couldn't have been worse.

(Soundbite of song, "The Star-Spangled Banner")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air...

GOODWYN: And then there's the political wildcard, Debra Medina, the true Texas Tea Party candidate.

(Soundbite of song, "The Star-Spangled Banner")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...that our flag was still there.

GOODWYN: At a political rally at a Chevrolet dealership parking lot in Cleburne, Texas, Medina spoke to hundreds of supporters, standing in the cold Texas sunshine.

Ms. DEBRA MEDINA (Candidate for Governor, Texas Tea Party): Private property ownership and gun ownership are the essential elements of freedom.

GOODWYN: Medina is a former volunteer for Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Medina is in favor of abolishing all property taxes, is pro-life, with no exceptions. Her economic program begins with abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, which she says will create thousands of jobs.

Ms. MEDINA: We begin to do that by telling the EPA you have no authority here. Get out of Texas energy. Get out of Texas agriculture. Get out of Texas manufacturing.

GOODWYN: Medina has amazed the political pundits by going from 4 percent in the polls in to the mid-20s, where she's begun to challenge Hutchison for second place. But then came her appearance on the "Glenn Beck" radio show. Beck said he'd heard Medina was a 9/11 Truther, and asked if that were so.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Glenn Beck")

Mr. GLENN BECK (Host, "Glenn Beck"): Do you believe the government was any way involved with the bringing down of the World Trade Centers on 9/11?

Ms. MEDINA: I don't have all of the evidence there, Glenn, so I don't - I - I'm not in a place - I have not been out publicly questioning that. I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard. There's some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there.

GOODWYN: Not long after her answer, Beck ended the interview.

Mr. BECK: Okay. Debra, thank you very much. I appreciate it, and best of luck to you.

Ms. MEDINA: Thank you, Glenn.

Mr. BECK: You bet. Bye-bye. I think...

Unidentified man: Problematic?

Mr. BECK: I think I can write her off the list. Let me take another look at Kay Bailey Hutchison if I have to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWYN: Medina's radio interview was treated with the same scorn that Rick Perry enjoyed after his sympathy with would-be secessionists. But this time around, Texas political pundits have been a little more cautious when trying to predict whether Debra Medina's political fortunes will rise or fall as a result.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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