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Analysis: A Political Split Between Brass, Caution

Most incumbents and front-runners have something in common: They're cautious in the vicinity of the public. But some of them aren't like that.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Rick Perry and state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, are shown at a press conference at Fort Hood, Texas, on April 4, 2014.

One of the things that makes U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz engaging is that he hasn't picked up one of the common symptoms of incumbency: defensiveness.

In his Texas Tribune Festival interview with Dan Balz of The Washington Post over the weekend, Cruz was game for every subject. He called himself and two liberal senators who voted with him against arms for ISIS “the three amigos.” He was relaxed through questions about his part in government shutdowns, his decision on whether to run for president, his disagreements with fellow senators in both parties and the “fundamentally corrupt” nature of the nation’s capital.

He shares that willingness to run toward controversy and not away from it with Gov. Rick Perry, who in a similar interview a day later clung to positions on tuition for Texas DREAMers and vaccines for human papillomavirus that have proven to be very unpopular with his party. (He was not completely incautious, ducking questions about the indictment itself and saying he had said in earlier forums everything he wanted to say.)

Perry offered a long defense of the state law that provides in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants in Texas. He said it was unlikely that any of them made the decision to come to the U.S. — imagining them as 6-year-olds hopping the border because of the future prospects of going to the University of Texas. And he said the state made a reasonable choice in deciding to educate those kids allowed into the state by an ineffective federal immigration policy. “Economically, what was in the best interest in the state of Texas was to give these young people the opportunity to be givers rather than takers, to be a constructive part of this society,” he said.

Perry offered his executive order for HPV vaccines as a regret, but said he still believes in the policy. He didn’t sell the public and the Legislature on it, though, and wishes he had that one back.

Both of those things got him in trouble. After Perry was indicted last month, several of the state’s hard-core conservatives came rushing to his defense, taking care as they arrived to say they were not with him politically on certain issues – that’s about HPV, among other things.

And Perry’s numbers in his last political race did not collapse when he made presidential debate history with that “Oops” moment — those numbers collapsed weeks earlier when he said anyone who didn’t support the in-state tuition policy didn’t have a heart. Perry now regrets the word he used, but not the policy. The Republican Party of Texas put support for that law’s repeal in its platform this summer. Cruz doesn’t like it. Dan Patrick, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, says it should be repealed.  

Perry is sticking to his guns on that, even as he contemplates another run for president in 2016.

But Perry and Cruz are not on the November ballot. With no risk for now, they have less reason for caution.

Patrick and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, are the front-runners in their races and are nevertheless operating cautiously around their opponents, minimizing the opportunities for any mistakes that could make their races closer.

If that makes them look like chickens, they can take solace in the knowledge that most Texans do not partake of the routine debates about debates. The nominees’ reticence for joint appearances frustrates their opponents but is not a bad idea in a political race. Abbott and his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, debated Friday and will meet once more next week. The candidates for lieutenant governor — Patrick and Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte — have only scheduled one debate, to be held next Monday.

They all know how dangerous these things can be. Cruz overtook Dewhurst after making a months-long story of Dewhurst’s unwillingness to appear before voters. By the time Dewhurst did, the story was set in stone. And Dewhurst reacted in his re-election bid by agreeing to numerous debates last year and into this year with Patrick and two other opponents in the Republican primaries. The exposure didn’t help, but it helped the challengers. He lost to Patrick in a runoff, after finishing second in March.

It’s not only the veterans and the incumbents who are careful about their words and actions. George P. Bush, the Republican nominee for land commissioner and a first-timer on the ballot, took the same position on the Texas DREAM Act that Perry took, putting himself somewhat at odds with his party.

But Bush raised the caution flag when asked about potential Republican primary contenders for president, including the one he is related to.

“I think folks know that I love him,” he offered, after saying he was going to stay out of that race.

He was talking about Jeb Bush — his father.

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2014 elections Dan Patrick David Dewhurst Greg Abbott Rick Perry Ted Cruz Wendy Davis