Friday night's second and final debate between the Republican candidates for governor might as well be called "The Debra Medina Show." While the two big-name contenders — Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry — are trying not to make any career-threatening gaffes, she'll be trying to add momentum to an outsider run that has made her the most interesting candidate in the race.
Sponsored by Dallas-based Belo Corp. and broadcast (or at least offered to) TV stations across the state, the debate will feature the trio questioned by reporters in a television studio without an audience. The first debate, two weeks ago, was held in a packed auditorium in Denton.
Medina can't afford to waste her last certain moment on center stage. She doesn't have millions of dollars to spend on television advertising, so this is a rare chance for her to talk to the whole state, or at least the part of it that watches Republican political debates on Friday nights. What does she want? "The same thing that happened the first time around," she says. She came out of the first debate with a bloom that helped her shoestring campaign raise more than $100,000 in a week.
A former Wharton County GOP chair, Ron Paul supporter, and failed candidate for state GOP chair, Medina was the big winner in the first debate. Put on stage with two fellow Republicans who've each been in statewide office since 1991, she held her own. She wasn't goofy — a way of saying that expectations were low and that she easily exceeded them. In fact, she put Perry, in particular, on the ropes with a couple of her responses. Voters looking for an outsider had their standard-bearer.
"I had no idea it would be received with the enthusiasm that it was," she says. Her problem was that people didn't know she was running. "It showed it was name ID and not problems they had with me as a candidate."
She wasn't originally invited to the second debate, but the sponsors relented as signs of her popularity grew — though it's not huge. The most recent public poll, from Rasmussen Reports, said she has just 12 percent of the GOP primary voters behind her. But hat was enough, particularly since the frontrunners were 10 points apart in the same survey. She's hopeful another turn on stage alongside Perry and Hutchison will provide an additional boost, recharge her grassroots supporters, and convert greater recognition into more dollars. "I have to hope we see big donors say, 'Okay, I'm ready now,'" she says.
The risk, of course, is that she loses steam after the debate is over and voters see a barrage of ads from Perry and Hutchison and nothing from her. Early voting starts in three weeks, and the election is on March 2. In real terms, that's soon. In political terms, that's plenty of time for a minor candidate to disappear.
"The best she can hope for is to kick the thing into a runoff — one that she will not be a part of," says Wayne Hamilton, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the Texas GOP. "She might as well get a hammer and hit her thumb and get it over with."
For Perry, the best offense on Friday night is a great defense. Don't make noteworthy mistakes: No news is good news. If there's nothing really interesting in the papers the next day, it's all good for the Guv. And drop the attitude; after the first debate, some viewers thought Perry was abrasive and fidgety. It didn't rise to the level of the sighs that undermined presidential candidate Al Gore in his first debate against George W. Bush, but it went on Perry's stage notes inside and outside the campaign. With no crowd in the room this time, he'll play to the cameras instead of the cheap seats. The idea is to be Mr. Positive and to try to deflect attacks on himself as attacks on the state; the idea is that anyone criticizing him is talking trash about Texas.
"Gov. Perry is going to keep doing what he's been doing throughout the election ... talking about conservative leadership, cutting taxes, balancing budgets, improving education and creating jobs," says his spokesman Mark Miner.
Hutchison's strategy lies somewhere in between. Candidates who think they're in solid positions before debates follow the same rule doctors follow: First, do no harm. She's got to protect the standing she's got — more debates are decided by screw-ups than terrific performances — while also taking Perry down a few notches. One option is to smile and nod as Medina rips Perry, letting the third candidate damage the frontrunner. But Medina also sent a few arrows in Hutchison's direction in the first debate. And Hutchison needs to land some blows, too.
"I'd be telling her, 'You've got to step it up,'" says Mark Sanders, who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, and both male and female candidates, in past Texas governor's races. "A woman can attack a man in a debate easier than a man can attack a woman."
Hutchison's campaign insists in conversation with supporters that the race between her and Perry is neck and neck. And that's how she's been acting: A candidate as far behind in the polls as Perry claims she is (somewhere in the double digits) would probably have opened the arsenal by now. Instead, she was assertive and confident in the first debate and landed a few jabs on the incumbent (though Medina was more direct, and more effective, as when she criticized Perry's boasting about jobs and the growing state budget). Hutchison, like Perry, wants to avoid mistakes.
"She needs not to trip when she walks out on stage," jokes Terry Sullivan, her campaign manager. Seriously, he says, Hutchison "needs to get her message out" and to let voters compare her with the others. "People will watch," he says. "We have [polling] data that just over 20 percent of the electorate said they watched the first debate." She'll also be hitting themes she's hitting on the trail and in her ads. She's recently swapped out her transportation spots with commercials on border security.
So, in sum: Medina needs to make it to the highlight reel after the debate to keep people talking and to fuel her grassroots campaign; Perry wants an empty highlights reel; and Hutchison wants something that hurts Perry, either directly or by helping Medina. Her best outcome is to win outright in March; second best is for Medina to force a runoff between Hutchison and the incumbent governor. And Medina's best chance might come in this debate.
While Hutchison and Perry have been debating opponents for years and have been gorging on policy and state arcana and going through mock debates to try to get ready, Medina's cramming but not practicing. "I just don't like role-playing and I don't want to have anything to do with it," she says. "But if Perry starts saying something incorrect about jobs, I want to throw the bullshit card. I have to have facts and data to be able to do that."