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Race for Hutchison Seat Already Starting to Jell

As Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison moves ever closer to challenging Gov. Rick Perry in the 2006 GOP primary, the jockeying to replace her has begun in earnest.

In recent days Hutchison has hired several operatives with significant campaign experience, including Terry Sullivan, who managed the campaign of now-Sen. Jim DeMint (R) in South Carolina last cycle, as well as media consultant Scott Howell and communications director Chris Paulitz, a 2004 alumnus of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Those staff additions have further stoked speculation that Hutchison is an all-but-announced gubernatorial candidate despite public — and private — assertions by those who know her well that she has not yet reached a decision and will not until early summer.

Hutchison’s hesitation has not stopped would-be Senate candidates from laying the groundwork for a statewide run — especially on the Republican side.

Witness the Lincoln Day dinner in Fort Bend County, located in suburban Houston, Friday night.

Perry and Hutchison were in attendance as was Rep. Henry Bonilla (R), far away from the West Texas Congressional district he has represented since 1992.

Bonilla said that cultivating the area is essential for any statewide candidate and that his presence at the event didn’t create a ripple of controversy.

“There was no problem at all with me being there and introducing myself around,” he said.

Bonilla’s presence there signals the aggressiveness he has brought to the early stages of the Senate campaign.

“Henry Bonilla is lapping the field,” said one Texas Republican strategist familiar with the jockeying. “He has been very aggressive and, in the minds of some people, too aggressive.”

The source added that in the past 10 days Bonilla has made sure Perry loyalists understand that he is not trying to push Hutchison into a race against the governor but is just ensuring that he is in a strong position should she vacate the seat.

Financially, Bonilla begins in strong shape with approximately $1.2 million in his House account that could be directly transferred to a Senate committee.

“I am raising the funds that may be needed down the road [and] trying to get out and meet as many people as possible,” said Bonilla.

While Bonilla has been moving around the state to build a larger organization, the other two oft-mentioned Republican Senate candidates, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Attorney General Greg Abbott, have already shown an ability to be elected statewide.

Dewhurst was seen as a strong candidate for the seat of retiring Sen. Phil Gramm (R) in 2002, but opted to run for his current post instead. He won that race with 52 percent, beating back a challenge from then-state Comptroller John Sharp (D).

Dewhurst cuts an appealing figure for Republican recruiters given his immense personal wealth derived from his success in the energy business. In his race against Sharp, Dewhurst spent upwards of $20 million of his own money.

A state Republican source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called Dewhurst the “800-pound gorilla” in an open-seat scenario but added that he is more interested in being governor than being a Senator. Dewhurst, along with every other statewide Republican official, has endorsed Perry’s re-election.

Under one line of thinking, Dewhurst will focus his energy on helping Perry defeat Hutchison and win a second full term — a victory that would create an open gubernatorial seat in 2010 for Dewhurst since Perry would be term-limited.

Dewhurst spokesman Mark Miner said that his boss is “focusing on serving the people of Texas as lieutenant governor.”

Like Dewhurst, Abbott was elected in 2002 as state attorney general after serving a stint as a judge in Harris County, which contains Houston, and then being appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. George W. Bush (R). In his 2002 race against former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, Abbott rolled up a 57 percent victory, in the process winning more than 2.5 million votes. By contrast, Dewhurst received 2.3 million votes in the lieutenant governor’s contest.

Abbott has a compelling life story; he was paralyzed from the waist down in 1984 after a tree fell on him while he was jogging in Houston and crushed a portion of his spine.

Abbott’s office did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

The Democratic side is less well formed and will likely remain so until former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros decides whether he is interested in running for Senate. Cisneros, who lives in San Antonio, is perennially mentioned as a Democratic statewide candidate but never makes the leap — a process Democrats expect to repeat again this cycle if the seat is open.

Among other potential Democratic candidates, Sharp and former Dallas Mayor and 2002 Senate nominee Ron Kirk are seen as the party’s best chance of re-establishing a foothold in the federal delegation.

Sharp was a rising Democratic star when as state comptroller he took on Perry in the 1998 lieutenant governor’s race. Sharp lost 50 percent to 48 percent and then subsequently lost to Dewhurst four years later for the same job.

In the 2002 race, however, Sharp was the only Democratic candidate on the ballot to win more than 2 million votes. Despite those setbacks, Sharp is intrigued by the possibility of running for Senate whether or not Hutchison seeks the governorship, according to several knowledgeable Democrats.

“John is like millions of other Texans looking at the lack of [Democratic] leadership at both the state level and in Washington,” said spokesman Kelly Fero.

While Sharp continues to contemplate a statewide race, it is not clear that there is a strong sentiment within the party for him to run again after two high-profile losses.

“There’s not much tread left on those tires,” said one party strategist not employed by any of the potential Democratic candidates.

Kirk, too, is coming off a statewide loss but itching to run again, according to numerous sources. The former mayor was the most highly touted Democratic Senate candidate in the 2002 cycle but disappointed at the ballot box, losing badly to then-state Attorney General John Cornyn (R).

Since that defeat, Kirk has remained active on the national political scene, even running an abbreviated campaign for Democratic National Committee chairman earlier this year.

Kirk is currently assessing whether he can again raise the millions of dollars necessary to make a competitive Senate bid, said several party strategists. In 2002, he raised and spent $9.4 million, much of it from national sources.

Another name prominently mentioned for Democrats is former Rep. Jim Turner, who retired in 2004 after his East Texas seat was decimated in a Republican-led redistricting.

Turner’s profile as a conservative Democrat with strength on defense issues is appealing in a general election, but he would be hard-pressed to emerge from a competitive party primary, said one Democratic strategist familiar with the state’s politics.

“Does Turner have a better general election profile [than Kirk]? Probably,” the source said.

Turner would bring a hefty war chest to the race. He had more than $1 million on hand at the end of 2004.

Former Rep. Chris Bell (D) is also mentioned as a candidate, but his allies insist he is in the 2006 governor’s race to stay.

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