Reporting from Washington — Texas Gov. Rick Perry romped to an easy victory Tuesday night in a bitterly fought GOP primary that pitted him against the state's popular U.S. senator and an insurgent candidate favored by the "tea party" movement.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison conceded the contest less than an hour after the polls closed when it became evident that Perry would receive at least the 50% he needed to avoid an April 13 runoff. Debra Medina, a longtime party activist making her first try for public office, finished third.
On the Democratic side, former Houston Mayor Bill White easily swept past half a dozen lesser-known candidates, giving the party its strongest gubernatorial contender in years.
Still, most analysts consider White a decided underdog in November.
"It's always uphill for Democrats in Texas," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The fact this is going to be a tough year for Democrats makes it even a steeper climb."
He said Texas' early primary would also play to the GOP's advantage even if the race is extended another six weeks. "It leaves plenty of time to heal any wounds and plenty of time to refill campaign coffers," Jillson said.
Polls closed at 8 p.m. local time, but sprawling Texas has two time zones, Central and Mountain, meaning residents in and around El Paso continued to vote for an hour after polls in the rest of the state were closed.
The grudge match between Perry and Hutchison had been building for years. Hutchison portrayed Perry as lazy and corrupt. Perry painted his opponent as a reckless pork-barreler out of touch with her home state.
But the race was not the ideological referendum -- pitting the conservative purity of Perry against Hutchison's relatively moderate stance -- that had been anticipated.
Part of that reflected the change in the political climate over the last year. The visceral anger against Washington was a gift to the governor, who relentlessly pounded Hutchison as a Beltway insider representing everything -- bailouts, government mandates, red ink -- that Texas conservatives despise.
"It definitely has made it more difficult for me," she said in the waning days of the contest. "I didn't think that anyone could turn my success in producing results for Texas into a negative."
Hutchison compounded her problems by dithering over whether she would surrender her Senate seat to run for governor full time. She chose to stay put, saying she wanted to fight the Democratic healthcare bill. That seemed to suit many Texas Republicans just fine; opinion surveys suggested they were perfectly happy to keep Perry in Austin, the state capital, and Hutchison in Washington.
Perry, who became governor when George W. Bush was elected president, is seeking an unprecedented third full term in office.
Medina briefly surged in polls after two strong debate showings. It seemed the businesswoman and first-time candidate might even slip past Hutchison and face Perry in a runoff. But her support plummeted after she appeared on Glenn Beck's radio show and said there were "some very good arguments" that the U.S. government was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Medina quickly backed off the statement, but politically the damage was done.