JUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison offered what appeared to be her first acknowledgment that Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry has done some damage to her bid to unseat him by successfully casting her as a Washington insider.
Trailing in the polls with less than a week before the March 2 primary, Hutchison assessed the state of her campaign and Perry's anti-Washington tactics to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
"It definitely has made it more difficult for me. I didn't think that people would buy that because I've been so effective for Texas," Hutchison told the AP on her campaign bus. "I didn't think that anyone could turn my success in producing results for Texas into a negative, but I think that he has attempted to do that and that is what I've been having to fight against."
In the interview, Hutchison talked up her own record of bringing federal dollars to Texas and said she's working hard to turn out grass-roots supporters to boost her into an April 13 runoff with Perry.
"I have protected Texas," she said. "I've voted with Texas values. ... I'm not Washington — I'm Texas."
Perry seems to be riding a national wave of frustration directed at Washington politicians — the same anger that has fueled the "tea party" movement and complicated Democrats' plans to overhaul the nation's health care system. The long-serving governor who has campaigned as populist has repeatedly criticized Hutchison for pushing earmarks and voting for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.
Hutchison, who has been in the Senate since winning a special election in 1993, spent much of the day Tuesday spreading her message that Perry's attacks aren't true, accusing the governor of cronyism and assailing his mostly abandoned Trans Texas Corridor toll road network that threatened private property.
"We appreciate the senator acknowledging our message is resonating with Texas voters," Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner said in a statement e-mailed to the AP.
Back in Austin, Perry saved up his response to her continuing cronyism charges until the last few days of the campaign, providing the AP with records purporting to show that the law firm where Hutchison previously worked with her husband, Ray, was found by a federal civil jury to have defrauded investors in a 1990s-era private prison deal.
Hutchison's campaign called the move an 11th-hour dirty trick, saying the court already had absolved Ray Hutchison and his firm and that the civil jury was acting without proper authority.
The research book released by Perry revisits a controversy over private prisons in six Texas counties — prisons built with bond financing the Hutchison law firm helped put together. The project was a financial disaster and the state wound up buying them at a fire sale price. While Perry released the 1994 verdict, ordering defendants to pay almost $80 million, the Hutchison campaign released a 1993 court order that dismissed Hutchison and his firm from the case after a settlement was reached. Neither campaign could explain the discrepancy.
Hutchison told the AP that Perry's been in office long enough.
"It's just wrong for somebody to stay 14 years and become arrogant," Hutchison said. Perry is the state's longest-serving governor, having moved up to the executive post in December 2000 when George W. Bush resigned to became president. Perry then won terms on his own in 2002 and 2006.
Hutchison considered running for governor in 2006, but said Tuesday she decided against it to keep the Republican Party united. She said that at the time, Perry signaled he wanted to run for only one more term.
"So I did step aside when I could have won," Hutchison said.
GOP activist Debra Medina also is in the March 2 primary, but may have lost steam since refusing to say there was no U.S. government involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Medina later tried to back away from those statements.
Hutchison said she is not sure where voters who may abandon Medina are going — to her campaign or to Perry's. One of them showed up Tuesday to greet Hutchison at a boot factory in the north Texas town of Justin. Alan Charles, 61, said he dropped his support for Medina and switched to Hutchison even after donating to Medina's campaign because of her remarks about the terrorist attacks.
A poll conducted Feb. 2-10 for major Texas newspapers found Perry leading with 45 percent support among likely Republican voters. Hutchison had 29 percent and Medina 17 percent. The rest were undecided. The telephone survey was conducted before Medina's 9/11 remarks.
Associated Press Writer Jay Root contributed to this report from Austin, Texas.