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Combs and the Perils of Political Adaptation

Adaptation is a tricky business, especially in the political realm, where sudden and surprising changes can become perilous "flip-flops."

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs at a TribLive event at the Austin Club on Oct. 20, 2011.

The Connecticut Leather Company started out in the shoe business and remade itself as a toy company. You know it as Coleco. was originally just an online bookstore. Your bank was probably operating under a different neon sign a couple of years ago.

Adaptation is crucial to survival. Businesses chase customers. Animals go wherever the water is. Politicians chase voters.

Comptroller Susan Combs, with her eye on the 2014 race for lieutenant governor, has endorsed, and on Thursday appeared with, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in this year’s Republican presidential race. That came as a surprise to those who classified her as a moderate, and it risked coming across as insincere to movement conservatives who did not expect her support.

The easy thing for Texas Republicans was to have a Texan in the race, but Gov. Rick Perry is long out of the contest. Now, instead of endorsing geographically, they have to endorse ideologically — if they endorse at all. For someone trying to appeal to the conservatives in the party, it is a no-brainer.

Combs followed with endorsements of a couple of conservative Texas House members — Wayne Christian of Center and David Simpson of Longview — who face challengers in the Republican primary in May. Her aides say other representatives, including several who support Republican Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio — a favorite quarry of party conservatives — will be getting endorsements and visits from Combs between now and the primary.

The comptroller and her fellow politicians are constantly maneuvering — or trying to maneuver — themselves into the favor of at least 51 percent of the voters. If their voters move, they move. Ronald Reagan, a Roosevelt Democrat, became a darling of the national Republican Party. Perry, a Democrat elected to the Texas House in the same 1984 election that swept Reagan to his second term, became the darling of the Texas Republican Party. Ron Paul, a Republican congressman, ran on the Libertarian Party’s presidential ticket in 1988 before winning his way back into Congress as a Republican again.

Most who change their politics do so without putting on the other team’s jersey. Bill Clinton championed changes to welfare and took an issue away from the opposition. Richard Nixon proposed a national health care plan. George W. Bush increased federal involvement in public education.

Combs was a Republican state lawmaker from Travis County in the mid-1990s. She supported abortion rights then, and it is safe to say, without raising any question about her convictions, that is where her voters were, too. Last year, she changed her position, citing what she called an alarming abortion rate and saying it had convinced her that the procedure should be legal only in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother was endangered.

It is also safe to say, without questioning her convictions, that her new position is more in line with most of the voters in a statewide Republican primary.

Combs won her current office before her change of heart on abortion policy, but she told conservative leaders that they had no cause for concern because the state’s tax collector did not have much to do with that issue. But the lieutenant governor, who decides which senators are on which committees and who sets the agenda for the Senate, has a hand in almost every state issue.

She will need to mollify the conservatives in the party, emphasizing agreements and playing down differences.

Her change of tack will not be tested until the next time that voters see her name on the ballot, probably in 2014. Her mission is to convince those who pegged her as a moderate that she is a conservative, and because Texas is a reliably Republican state, she probably will not have to make the change in a way that protects her in a general election from a Democratic opponent. Democratic challenges figure into national elections and will probably figure into state contests someday, but it is not the top concern of Republican candidates. The primary is the thing, and the voters there are conservative.

She has to adapt without raising suspicions that political ambition was the sole cause of any change in thinking.

It is a question of how she moves and where she ends up. But it is also about what she believes and what voters think she believes — or whether they think she believes anything at all.

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