HOUSTON — Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants to make one thing clear.
"We live in a great country," he said, hands pressed to his chest. "I'm not in favor of Texas seceding."
That said, Perry insisted that those who jumped on his statement last month -- a seeming nod and wink at the idea -- were purposely trying to distract from the real problem: Washington's overreaching.
"This was a classic example of trying to deflect off the issue at hand, which people were talking about," Perry said, doing a bit of his own deflecting between stops on a steamy Houston afternoon. "They're sick of Washington overspending. They're sick of Washington mandating to states how to run their business. That's what this country ought to be having a discussion about."
It might seem Perry has President Obama and congressional Democrats in mind, and, in fact, his contempt for the Beltway crowd has made him a folk hero to many conservatives nationwide who would gladly see Washington revert to its original swampland.
But his main target is closer to home: fellow Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, the state's popular U.S. senator and the biggest threat to Perry's hopes for an unprecedented third term and, some say, a shot at national office.
Everything is bigger (and better) in Texas, as Texans will tell you, and the March primary promises to be one of next year's marquee contests. On one side is Perry, 59, hoping to galvanize the shrinking GOP base with a message of unstinting, unadulterated, keep-your-hands-off conservatism.
On the other side is the somewhat less conservative Hutchison, 65, who speaks softly and hopes to broaden the party's appeal to Democrats, independents and, most crucial, the kind of moderate Republican who votes in November but rarely in March.
Theirs is a fight playing out nationally, but it is all the more resonant in Texas, home of former President George W. Bush, who helped deliver the GOP to its unhappy state.
"In some ways this is a perfect litmus test," said Royal Masset, a longtime Republican strategist, who questions whether the party has a place for moderate conservatives like him.
It is a fight few Texas Republicans want; few, that is, save Perry, who has a history of winning close, nasty contests and seems to campaign best when pressed to a wall.
"The simple thing to say is this guy is a right-wing nut who shouldn't be taken seriously," said Garry Mauro, a Democrat and onetime political foe, who has known Perry since their days at Texas A&M University. "Anybody who's doing that is making a horrible mistake."
Perry is tenacious, even critics admit, which suggests he is not just the luckiest politician in Texas, as often described. Lucky as in going from Democrat to Republican, winning his first statewide office in 1990 just as the GOP was gaining hegemony; as in running with then-Gov. Bush in 1998, riding his popularity into the lieutenant governor's seat -- as in automatically becoming governor when Bush became president.
Perry, handsome in a rugged way, brushes aside the talk of luck, the same way he ignores the "Governor Goodhair" jibes -- "I'm a pretty big believer you make your own luck," he said in a soft West Texas drawl.
Perry is an excellent campaigner, maybe because he grew up in Paint Creek, a flyspeck town where everybody knew everybody and Perry learned to be friendly with just about anyone.
Appearing recently at a fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund, before a mostly black crowd with probably a handful of supporters, Perry drew several ovations as he boasted of Texas' economic performance -- better than the nation as a whole -- and recognized several young scholars, including a young man "sittin' here fixin' to be a doctor."
Perry is a hands-on candidate: He grasps biceps, pokes the fat part of a shoulder, wraps an arm around a listener, cups the face of a small boy in his hands. Hours after his speech, Perry was on one knee, a black ostrich-skin boot thrust behind him, making easy small talk with children at an elementary school.
Texas is a place where retail politicking matters, even with 24 million people and a midsection wide enough for two time zones.
"People in Texas want to be asked for their votes," said Cliff Johnson, a longtime friend and ex-lawmaker. "It's a damn simple deal."
Some say Perry takes the cordiality too far. As Texas' longest-serving governor, he has made thousands of appointments, greatly expanding the limited powers of his office and, critics say, rewarding cronies and political benefactors.
Critics -- not all Democrats -- say Perry's affability can't hide the fact that Texas is one of the stingiest states when in comes to social services; it has 1.5 million children without health insurance, the nation's highest percentage.