The three Republicans who want to be governor of Texas — Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Debra Medina — meet in their first debate tonight in Denton (and on statewide television and radio), each hoping to ignite support for the March 2 primary election.
Perry, the incumbent since late 2000, is trying to keep his front-runner status intact. Most voters are just tuning into the contest in a serious way, and Hutchison, who's been in the U.S. Senate since 1993, has a chance to catch their attention and offer an alternative to the guy in office. Medina, who doesn't have the resources available to a sitting governor or a sitting U.S. senator, hopes to appeal to voters looking for something other than a career politician — to offer a fresh start.
It's a high-risk environment. For leading candidates, almost anything really noticeable in a debate is bad. Voters can, of course, watch just to get a basic feel for each contender, to try to decide how to vote. That's the civics bit, and it's the main purpose of these events.
For the contenders,debates are live oral exams that, at best, leave voters satisfied that candidates are up to the job they seek. A mistake gets repeated first in news reports and, later, by the opposition. One bad sound bite can resonate for weeks.
Medina, who trails in money and in name identification with voters and in the polls, has the least to lose. And she's the most dangerous person on stage, with a chance to register with Tea Partiers and other Republicans who are upset with the government and politicians who have a hand running it — for instance, her two opponents. Political pros debate whether she steals votes from Perry or Hutchison. But if those two end up in a close race, even a relatively small showing on Medina's part could force the race into an April runoff. That's not necessarily good for her, but it could weaken the eventual Republican nominee and open a door for the Democrats in November.
Perry potentially has the most at risk, since he's in front in most polls. An error-free night is his second-best outcome. The only thing better for him would be a mistake by Hutchison, his most formidable challenger. He'll be asking voters to leave him in a job he's held for ten years while ducking attacks on problems that have troubled state government while he's been in office.
Hutchison will be selling change, asking voters to replace Perry with a new governor while also defending herself from attacks for her role in a most unpopular national government. The debate is only part of that task — she's got millions in the campaign war chest and the ad wars are well underway — but it's a critical part. A slip-up could derail her challenge, but a good performance could put her into strong contention, particularly if Perry goofs.
The Texas Debates are being produced by KERA in partnership with CBS 11 (KTVT-TV) and TXA 21 (KTXA-TV), Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KUVN Univisión 23, Texas Association of Broadcasters (TAB), Texas State Network, and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Belo Corp. has announced a second debate, on January 29, between Perry and Hutchison only; for now, at least, Medina doesn't meet their criteria. The seven Democrats in the race for governor — led by Bill White and Farouk Shami — haven't yet agreed to debate.