Three days before voters decide whether to put U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on the road to the Governor’s Mansion or send her back to D.C., she donned her biggest red-lipstick smile, a pair of black Wranglers, black shiny cowboy boots, a black cowboy hat and a bright flower-embroidered Western-cut blouse. She trotted on horseback through downtown Houston on a sunny, brisk Saturday morning. She waved, smiled and blew kisses to thousands of flag-waving spectators who lined the sidewalks for the city’s annual Downtown Rodeo Parade.
It was the 24th time Hutchison had participated in the parade, but it might have been the most important procession ever for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. She's been trying to get back to Texas for years, and yet this opportunity for a grand homecoming could be slipping through her hands. With the state's conservative voters caught up in a national anti-Washington tide, Hutchison has a scant few days to prove she’s still one of them — to try to break away from the D.C.-insider image that incumbent Gov. Rick Perry has painted of her on the stump and on television. Polls show she’s trailing Perry in the coming GOP primary by double digits. After coming into the campaign blazing, Hutchison is now left to hope that Perry will pull in less than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday and that she'll eke out enough support to beat the third candidate in the race, Debra Medina, and make it into the April 13 runoff.
Despite the not-so-promising outlook, Hutchison displayed a strong, confident face in Houston. She started the day with a pre-parade meet-and-greet breakfast, rode in the parade and then drove across town to pound the pavement in Sugar Land. “Things are going great. I feel good, and I’m going to campaign to the end,” a smiling Hutchison told a local TV reporter during an interview shortly before the parade. “I don’t think the polls are right.”
"I'm going to win this thing"
After spending Thursday campaigning in the Panhandle and Friday flying around North and Central Texas, Hutchison flew into Houston on Saturday to start the final weekend before the primary election at the Livestock Show and Rodeo. It’s one of her favorite events, she told folks who came up to shake her hand and pose for photos at Houston’s Alley Theater before the parade.
Houston dignitaries in their Western finery — black and tan Stetsons, boots of every shade, suede fringe and fur-collared coats appeared to be required attire — came out for the annual festivities that kick off the rodeo. They mingled in the theater’s foyer, noshing on breakfast tacos and sausage and nursing small, white Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee.
Hutchison entered with her 8-year-old daughter, Bailey, at her side, and the two smiled for a photo with the rodeo mascot: a giant bright orange “H” with a Western hat, boots and a blue mustache. With Bailey clinging to her, Hutchison worked the room, shaking hands, hugging supporters and reassuring everyone that she feels good about the race.
Don Jordan, a retired chairman of Reliant Energy and the current chairman and CEO of Jordan Capital Management, got a hug from Hutchison. It’s been a tough race for the candidates, but it’s also been tough on Republicans like Jordan who consider both Hutchison and Perry friends. Jordan has given Hutchison more than $10,000 for the gubernatorial race, but he’s also given Perry money in the past. He thinks the two powerhouses will wind up in a runoff. “We’ll have a chance to go through this fight again in another month,” Jordan said.
Hutchison spent a few minutes at the breakfast talking with University of Houston President Renu Khator. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and Hutchison's Republican colleague in the Senate, John Cornyn arrived. And then Hutchison headed outside for a brief interview with a Houston TV station. The reporter asked about attack ads from Perry’s campaign that call her the queen of earmarks and a Washington insider. She told him she’s got a strong record of bringing Texans’ tax dollars back home to the Lone Star State to help create jobs, bolster the economy and strengthen institutions like the University of Houston. “That is doing my job,” she said. The reporter asked her to predict the outcome of the race. She smiled, not responding for a few moments, and then said, “Of course, I’m going to be in the runoff with Gov. Perry, and we’re going to start all over, and I think I’m going to win this race.”
The three-minute interview ended, and Hutchison quickly returned to work the room. Daughter Bailey, in her little red boots, returned to her side as she shook a few more hands and posed for a few more photos before running outside for the parade. As Hutchison made her way to the street, where parade horses were waiting for the procession to start, a staffer offered her two cowboy hats: one red, one black. She smoothed back her short gray-blonde waves, pushing the hair over her ears, and slid on the black hat before slinging one leg up over an auburn-haired quarter horse.
Perched atop the horse, Hutchison placed her hand over her heart as the Texas A&M University Aggie Band played the national anthem. The procession started, and she rode down the middle of the street in the shadows of Houston’s skyscrapers, smiling and waving. A woman screamed, “Kay for governor!” A man across the street asked, “Hey, who is that?”
The parade ended where it started, at the Alley Theater, and Hutchison was whisked off the horse and onto a golf cart. From there, it was on to the campaign bus and the next item on the agenda: retail politics in Sugar Land.
"I just think it's time for a change"
About a 30-minute drive from downtown Houston, Sugar Land is an affluent suburb dotted with high-end chain stores and fancy new homes. It is also the stomping ground of Tom DeLay, the once-venerated and now-infamous former U.S. congressman and Republican majority leader.
When the campaign bus stopped at the new city center, where Sugar Land City Hall is surrounded by an outdoor mall, Hutchison exited, having changed from her rodeo parade attire into a more subdued black blazer.
Linda Hancock, the Fort Bend County campaign chairwoman, met up with her, and the two walked across the street and into Fish City Grill just as the lunch crowd was settling in. Hutchison greeted a couple with a small baby and walked up to another table where two women sat with a plate full of crawfish. She doled out campaign cards and encouraged the diners to get to the polls on Tuesday.
Carol Petrusek and her husband were finishing up their lunch when Hutchison stopped by. As they left the restaurant, the two seemed less than impressed. Petrusek said she’s so fed up that she’s not even going to participate in the primary election. She plans to wait until the November general election to vote. “I don’t like any of 'em,” Petrusek said of the gubernatorial candidates. They’ve drifted from conservative basics, she complained. “They’ve’ gotten too governmental, and … they’re too big business.”
Hutchison found a more welcoming lot down the street at Café Express. A gaggle of Chi Omega sorority alumnae were outside for a little unofficial reunion, and they were all giggles, smiles and hellos as the senator walked up. They asked her to pose for a photo, and they happily took Hutchison’s campaign cards.
Inside, Hutchison walked up to a table of teachers on break from an in-service day. They pushed aside beer bottles and leaned in close to listen to her. Hutchison told them she has an education plan that will keep more students in school and improve teacher benefits. “Teaching is really where the rubber hits the road,” she said.
At the next table, Marty and Monica Criswell, visiting from Bryan-College Station, told Hutchison she already has their votes. Marty, a Republican, has been voting for her for years. He’s also voted for Perry in the past, but not this time. “We’ve got a better horse in the race,” he said. Monica, a Democrat, said this year she’s voting in the GOP primary for Hutchison because she’s a better option than any of the Democratic candidates. “I just think it’s time for a change,” she says.
After another stop at a third restaurant, Hutchison wrapped up the first half of her day with a brief interview with a CNN reporter. Her afternoon would be filled with more stops in the Houston area. Sunday she was to start her day with a sermon at Pastor Joel Osteen’s famous Lakewood Church, a nondenominational Houston megachurch, where she'd have the chance to spread her last-minute message to thousands of worshippers. In the three days before the polls close, Hutchison planned to visit voters in Plano, San Antonio, Tyler and Austin, hoping in the whirlwind to convince them she’s not the caricature Perry has made her out to be. “I know that we can do better,” she says, “if we have a governor that will lead instead of doing the political posturing.”