WhenÂ the GOP gubernatorial debate was finished last night Â at Belo’s WFAA-TV in Dallas, the 40 or 50Â journalists who’d been watching the showÂ backstage fromÂ a “media viewing area” were invited to file into the Channel 8 lobby, where featured performers Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina had been askedÂ to attendÂ a post-debate press conference.Â
Pretty soon, though, wordÂ filtered into the lobby Â that Perry wouldn’t be showing up. Then came news that Hutchison wouldn’t, either. Only Medina (pictured)Â stepped to the podium,Â claiming a “strong” debate performance and ripping her opponents for their absence at the after-party.Â
MedinaÂ was right about performing strongly in the statewideÂ debate–she outdidÂ Hutchison, for sure–but I’d say the night’s real winner was Perry.Â In contrast toÂ the public-TV debate held earlier this month, when heÂ came offÂ oily and shallow, last night’s PerryÂ was sharp, composedÂ and commanding, downright statesmanlike.Â The turnaround was enough toÂ etch his frontrunner status in the raceÂ in stone, I’d bet,Â andÂ by the timeÂ theÂ evening was overÂ the increasingly formidable Medina–surprisingly and against all odds– seemedÂ a threatÂ to overtake Kay.
Maybe it was the camera angle–it couldn’t have been his narrow pink tie!–but Perry seemed confident, less defensive than before,Â better prepared. That showed when he touted Texas’ “No. 1” status, citingÂ low taxes, experienced leadership and tort reform (“we don’t allow for over-suin’, ” Perry said).Â Â
It also showed when he came underÂ repeatedÂ fireÂ for hisÂ Texas Enterprise Fund–a $380 million jobsÂ initiative that funnels dough to companiesÂ that agree to expand (like Dallas-based Texas Instruments) or to move to Texas.Â
Seemingly encouragedÂ byÂ tough questions to PerryÂ about the fund from reporter Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News–Slater called it a program with a “checkered past”–HutchisonÂ said the state would be better off using the TEF money for education. AndÂ Medina branded the program a “corporate slush fund” that rewards Perry’s business friends.
“You are absolutely wrong that this is a program with ‘a checkered past,’ ” PerryÂ told Slater. The reporter had said the governor has “moved the goal posts” on theÂ TEF,Â amending contractsÂ for some companiesÂ that failed to meet theirÂ jobs goals. Asked Perry: “What’s wrong with that?”
It was a good question. Competition among the states for jobs-creating companies is fierce, and PerryÂ can fairly argueÂ that the fund hasÂ been a factor in keepingÂ Texas’ economy relatively healthy.Â
Hutchison, for her part, was articulate and (sometimes) pointed during the evening, attackingÂ the governorÂ for mismanagement at TxDOT–“I will jerk it by its roots,” she said–and for presiding over a 30 percent high-school dropout rate (“that’s not success, that’s failure”).
But her position on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision–whose “restrictions are good restrictions; I think it’s very clear,” she said–showed again why she’s weak among Republican pro-life voters. SheÂ also made aÂ risky flat statement about resigning her Senate seat: “There’s not a scintilla of a chance a Democrat will be elected to the Senate.” And, all in all, she simply seemed again to lack a clear compelling argument–“the fire in the belly”–toÂ installÂ Â her in the governor’s office over the incumbent.
Medina was another story.Â Though coming into the debate she was trailing in the polls (12 percent in Rasmussen’s, behind Perry’s 43 percent and Hutchison’s 33), the nurse from Wharton County seized the moment like an old pro,Â pounding homeÂ the anti-incumbent, tea-party themes that haveÂ juiced her candidacyÂ lately.
Calling Perry and Hutchison “a team of economic tricksters,” Medina talked about the costs of illegal immigration, why she’sÂ opposed to gay marriage, the use of “nullification”Â to counterÂ federal encroachment, andÂ her planÂ to replace property taxes with a sales tax. She also nailedÂ one of theÂ “gotcha” questions thrown her wayÂ by the debate panelists, missing the average public school teacher’s pay in Texas byÂ less than $200 (MedinaÂ guessedÂ $46,000; the rightÂ Â answer, the panel said, was $46,179).
AtÂ theÂ post-debate press conference,Â someone asked Medina about her earlier prediction that “financial ruin is knocking at our doorstep”–and whetherÂ that wasn’t a little over-the-top. “We’ve seen California go bankrupt,” and the city of Houston is technically bankrupt as well, though it hasn’t been widely reported, Medina replied. “We’ve tripled our debt,” there’s rising unemployment in the U.S., and “now Texas finds itself struggling, too.”Â Â
It’s clear that Medina fancies herself aÂ truth-telling realist,Â while Perry, she says, “has tried to paint Texas with a broad, rose-colored brush.” (Even some of his supportersÂ agree.) Now–asÂ each candidate vies for 51 percent of the March 2 vote to avoid a runoff–the questionÂ isÂ whichÂ pictureÂ GOP voters will prefer:Â Debra the Cassandra, or Rick the cheerleader-in-chief.Â Many will wonder whetherÂ Hutchison still matters.Â Â Â Â Â Â