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What Does Debra Want?

Now that she'll join Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison on stage at the second GOP debate — now that she's cracked spoiler-worthy double digits in the latest poll and will fundraise, Ron Paul-style, through an online "money bomb" — it's fair to ask what longshot gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina is in it for.

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For a few hours after the January 14 Republican gubernatorial debate, novice candidate Debra Medina became one of the country’s hottest searches on Google; the trend chart measuring the popularity of her name shows a line zooming upward at a near vertical. In the 72 hours following that statewide television appearance, she collected $65,000 in unsolicited campaign contributions — more than a quarter of her total fundraising since she started running for governor last February. “To have the response that we did, with rank-and-file Texans, has given me a real shot in the arm,” says Medina, the former Wharton County GOP chairwoman.

Soon, more money may roll in. Supporters plan to take part in a targeted strike of online donations, a "money bomb" tactic that helped U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign net $6 million in a 24-hour period.

Her opponents, Republican titans Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, have been slugging it out for months with many more dollars at their disposal. Now, after weeks of uncertainty, the lesser-known Medina again has access to free statewide television airtime. Belo, the media company that owns four television stations in Texas and The Dallas Morning News, on Monday reversed its earlier decision that Medina doesn't meet the standards for inclusion in the second and final debate, one of which was a 15 percent showing in public opinion polls. She's close enough, apparently. In a Rasmussen Reports survey after the debate, Medina tripled her fall showing, from 4 percent to 12 percent.

That’s spoiler territory, but her own electoral viability is still dubious. She has questioned the state mandate that children attend school, is open to decriminalizing marijuana and calls for repealing the state's concealed handgun law. The Rasmussen poll shows 28 percent of voters have no opinion of her. It's unlikely that she can overtake either established figure, but she may be able to pluck enough voters from them to force a run-off.

If the model for this type of campaign is Paul — who ignited similar netroots passion and support with his '08 run for the White House — Medina's prospects aren't promising: Paul got less than 5 percent of the vote in the presidential primary in Texas, his home state. And Medina’s fundraising, despite the spike, has proven paltry in this $35 million race featuring career politicians Perry and Hutchison: As of the most recent filing, she raised only $232,000 last year, compared to $11.4 million for the Governor and $12.8 million for the Senator.

Medina accepts the comparison to Paul but believes her supporters will turn out in greater numbers than his did. "This is a whole ‘nother level of political activism,” Medina says. “These are people who understand that the ballot box is a critical element in restructuring our government, restoring our republic.”

Her backers are already showing up for her in vocal, visual ways. Hundreds of comments on the Morning News’ web site called for her to be included in the debate. On Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, dozens protested in front of the paper's building, angered by her exclusion from the Jan. 29 face off. By day’s end, Belo relented.

She hurts whom?

In politics, one candidate’s gain in support usually comes at the cost of another. Ultimately, Medina's role in this three-way race might come down to your particular perspective. Perry's campaign insists it's unaffected by Medina, and Hutchison’s campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, says he’s not sure Medina's surge benefits one team over the other. “[Medina] helps highlight issues where Perry is weak,” he said, "but from a tactical standpoint, we’re going after the same people: people who think Perry failed at his job.”

At the same time, Medina can give Hutchison a boost — as many believe she did in the first debate — since both Perry and Medina are competing for voters from the far right. People like Paul Davis.

A third-degree black belt kung fu instructor in south Austin, Davis spends his free time working for candidates he cares about. In 2008, he led the largest Ron Paul group in the country. He considers himself a Libertarian and says he has no use for either Perry or Hutchison.

He and six others, including Medina, got on a conference call early last year to try to find a candidate to represent their interests. Medina "did not want to do it," Davis recalls. "She did not want to get into a race she thought she could not win. For whatever reason, a few days later, she decided to do it. She cares about the prosperity of Texas. I can’t say the same for Perry.”

Medina now earnestly believes the nomination is within her grasp. She professes not to bother with any political calculation outside of winning the nomination and the governorship. “I pretty much have my focus on the finish line, not looking around,” she says. She knows the real test is coming quickly, almost as quickly as her recent popular ascent. She acknowledges that voters and political observers wonder whether Perry and Hutchison were just caught off-guard at the first debate, and whether she will prove to be a credible candidate.

"It’s important to see whether I can take the heat" in the second debate, she says. "We deserve as Texans to know whether someone we’re putting in leadership can handle herself under pressure. This is the only chance for all Texans to be able to see that."

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