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Perry, White Way Ahead

In the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, Rick Perry and Bill White are way out front in their respective primaries.

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Gov. Rick Perry is well ahead of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former Wharton County GOP chair Debra Medina, who are locked in a statistical tie for second place in a GOP gubernatorial primary that could go to a runoff, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Perry had the support of 45 percent of self-identified Republican primary voters — short of the majority required for an outright win. Hutchison had 21 percent and Medina had 19 percent, a two-percentage-point divide that's smaller than the poll's margin of error.

In the Democratic primary race, former Houston Mayor Bill White has a huge lead over his next closest challenger, businessman Farouk Shami, pulling 50 percent to Shami's 11 percent. Five other candidates are in the running for the Democratic nomination; the survey found that only 9 percent of those polled prefer someone other than the two frontrunners.

Undecided voters are still significant in both gubernatorial primaries. On the Republican side, 16 percent said they hadn't made up their minds. Pressed for a preference, 51 percent chose Perry, 34 percent chose Hutchison, and 15 percent chose Medina — an indication that Perry could win without a runoff if he can attract those voters into his camp. Among Democratic voters, 30 percent were undecided, and of those, 48 percent, when pressed, said they lean toward White. With White already at 50 percent, that means Shami would have to strip votes away from him in order to force a runoff or to claim a win.

The numbers show significant erosion for Hutchison since our first survey in late October, when Perry had 42 percent of self-identified Republican primary voters to her 30 percent (Medina, at the time, had 7 percent).

"Debra Medina has turned this thing upside down," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, who conducted the poll with Daron Shaw, a professor of government at UT-Austin.

"Debra Medina has clearly become a wild card in the Republican gubernatorial primary race," Shaw said. "She caught everyone's attention in the debates and is riding a bit of a wave. The analytical question is 'who does she hurt more?' On the one hand, she has been reasonably effective in critiquing Perry's stewardship and conservative credentials. On the other hand, she cuts into Hutchison's claim as the most plausible vehicle for change."

White, who now apparently is running away with the Democratic race, wasn't even in the running in October. He was in the midst of an exploratory race for the U.S. Senate, based on the idea that Hutchison would resign and there would be a special election to replace her, and only joined the gubernatorial contest on December 4. Shami wasn't a declared candidate, either, and many of those who were in the race — Tom Schieffer, Ronnie Earle, Kinky Friedman, and Hank Gilbert — got out. Undecided voters led with 55 percent in our first poll of the Democrats.

In general election matchups, the Republicans trump the Democrats. Perry would beat White, according to the new poll, 44-35. Hutchison would, too, and by the same margin: 43-34 (in our earlier poll, she outperformed Perry in hypothetical general election matchups). Medina and White would tie, 36-36. Shami would lose a hypothetical race to Perry, 48-25; to Hutchison, 49-23; and to Medina, 40-24.

Democratic primary voters have a couple of other statewide races to decide. In the contest for lieutenant governor — the winner will face Republican incumbent David Dewhurst in November — labor leader Linda Chavez-Thompson took 18 percent of those polled, former Travis County District Attorney Earle got 16 percent, and restaurateur Marc Katz had 3 percent. Five percent of voters said they wanted "somebody else," and a whopping 58 percent remain undecided on the eve of early voting, which begins on Tuesday.

Friedman and Gilbert — two refugees from the governor's race now running for agriculture commissioner — are locked in a tight race, 32 percent to 27 percent. While Friedman's ahead, the difference is within the poll's margin of error. And, as with the Lite Guv race, “undecided” is actually leading, at 41 percent. The winner will face incumbent Republican Todd Staples in November.

In the fantasy special election to replace Hutchison in the Senate — she has said she plans to resign before her term ends, no matter how the gubernatorial race turns out — Democrat John Sharp leads, with 29 percent, followed by Dewhurst at 15 percent and five more Republicans clustered in low single digits, with each at 3 percent or less. All told, the GOP votes add up to 24 percent; besides Dewhurst, the candidates polled were sportscaster Craig James (1 percent), Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones (2 percent), state Sen. Florence Shapiro (2 percent), Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams (3 percent), and former Secretary of State Roger Williams (1 percent). That's the rub in this race: Sharp is the only Democrat left now that White's out, while the Republicans have to share their party's votes. Even so, “undecided” sits atop the heap at 47 percent. In the earlier UT/TT poll, White and Dewhurst were tied at 13 percent, with Sharp at 10 percent. (A special election would go to a runoff if nobody got a majority in the first round. In the last such election, in 1993, Hutchison finished first, barely, in the first round of voting with then-U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger, the dominant Democrat in that race. She trounced him in the second round.)

Texas remains a red state, as evidenced by respondents' answers to generic party questions about Congress and the Legislature. Without picking specific candidates, 44 percent said they would vote for the Republican in a race for Congress, to 35 percent for the Democrat; 17 percent were undecided. Asked the same question about the Texas Legislature, 43 percent chose the Republican and 36 percent chose the Democrat, with 18 percent undecided.

How strong is the Tea Party movement, and who does it steal votes from? Asked the generic congressional question with that movement included as a third organized party, 21 percent said they would choose the Republican, 36 percent would choose the Democrat, and 16 percent would vote for the Tea Party candidate. More than a fourth — 27 percent — said they were undecided. So the Democratic numbers held, while Republicans lost 16 points to the Tea Party and the rest to undecided.

"The electorate is responding to whatever it is they're associating with the Tea Party — at the expense of the Republicans," Henson said. While that's not necessarily to the advantage of the Democrats, he said it will have an effect on the majority party: "The tea party is going on in the Republicans' house."

The Internet survey of 800 registered voters was conducted February 1-7 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.46 percent. The GOP primary questions have a +/- 5.12 percent margin of error; the Democratic primary questions have a margin of error of +/- 6.02 percent.

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Politics 2010 elections Bill White Griffin Perry Rick Perry