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Senator Ponders 2 ’06 Races

Spurred by her recent decision to hire a communications specialist with close ties to Texas politics, speculation has begun anew about Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R-Texas) interest in challenging Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2006.

Longtime Texas political operative David Beckwith, who has worked for Hutchison in the past, has been hired as a counselor to the Senator.

Hutchison, who is also up for a third Senate term two years from now, refused to address — or rule out — a gubernatorial bid in a brief interview Tuesday.

“I am not at all thinking about 2006,” she said. “I am just not focused on it.”

Hutchison has long harbored larger ambitions, however, and one state GOP source indicated that she believes she would be better positioned for a national campaign as a governor.

“She perceives that part of the reason George W. Bush eclipsed her is because he was a governor and she was a Senator,” said the source.

Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said that the gubernatorial campaign “is two years off yet,” noting that “the same sort of rumors surfaced prior to the 2002 race.”

While refusing to comment directly on the 2006 conundrum, Hutchison did say that she is “getting [her] war chest ready,” though she did not specify for which race.

Under Texas state law, Hutchison would be permitted to transfer the entirety of her coffers from her federal campaign committee to a gubernatorial account.

Through Sept. 30, Hutchison showed $5.4 million on hand, and in the final three months of the year pursued an extremely aggressive fundraising schedule. Her year-end financial report must be postmarked to the Secretary of the Senate by Jan. 31.

That massive war chest — with no serious Senate contenders in sight — coupled with Hutchison’s recent hiring of Beckwith have reinvigorated rumors that she is putting the pieces in place for a 2006 governor’s race.

Beckwith was brought on Jan. 1 as a counselor to Hutchison, who currently serves as vice chairwoman of the Senate Republican Conference. He had previously served as the Senator’s press secretary and is seen as her chief political adviser.

“This is an important year for our Republican Conference to stay together,” said Beckwith. “We have got to see what we can get done this year and defend against distortion to keep matters on the straight and narrow.”

He dismissed talk that his hiring was in any way related to Hutchison’s gubernatorial aspirations.

Beckwith, who gained renown as spokesman for former Vice President Dan Quayle, has had a hand in almost every major GOP political victory in Texas over the past few cycles. In 2002, he served as spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R), who handily defeated former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D) in one of the most high-profile open-seat races in the country.

Following that win, Beckwith latched on with Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), who after being elected in a competitive race in 2002 became a leading voice on the controversial Congressional redistricting debate in the state.

In the third special session of the Legislature last year, Republicans passed a map that is expected to endanger as many as six Democratic incumbents.

Even as Hutchison — and Beckwith — sought to tamp down talk that she was leaning toward the gubernatorial race, several state and national Republican insiders agreed that her political future remains an open question.

“Kay wants to be speculated about,” said one Texas Republican strategist. “She likes the idea of people in Texas being concerned about her political future.”

“It is a topic of conversation that has been raised in the backrooms, but it’s something that most people believe will come to light after the 2004 elections,” added a Republican leadership aide.

Talk of the race has been fueled by repeated clashes between Perry and Hutchison, the most recent coming over draft guidelines drawn up by the Pentagon for expected military base closures that will begin in 2005.

Perry backed the draft guidelines in a press conference near Fort Hood, while Hutchison sent a letter to Pentagon officials asking for major changes in the proposal — which, she argued, would increase the potential for Texas bases to remain open.

The situation is further complicated by the political aspirations of state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (R), who has emerged as a frequent Perry critic over the past year and is also mulling a gubernatorial bid in 2006.

Polling done late last year shows that Hutchison would present a formidable challenge to Perry, who won a full four-year term in 2002 after ascending to the state’s top post when Bush was elected president in 2000. Hutchison led Perry 45 percent to 41 percent in a hypothetical matchup conducted by Scripps Research Center.

Brody Mullins contributed to this report.

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