AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — With considerable personal wealth and one of the most powerful jobs in Texas state government, Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is considered the early favorite to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The key word being "early."
Dewhurst has just been sworn in for a third term and must grapple with one of the worst budget shortfalls in state history, a task sure to bog him down in a legislative session where every decision could provide fodder for critics.
He isn't officially in the Senate race yet and says he is spending "99.9 percent" of his time on the legislative session in Austin, where he presides over the state Senate and plays a major role in what gets out of the chamber.
Still, he's already drawing derision from tea party conservatives who warn his reputation as a relatively bipartisan consensus builder — which has won him kudos at the Capitol — translates into establishment politician. It doesn't matter to some that Dewhurst has supported most conservative causes and was a generous donor before spending millions on his own races for statewide office.
Dewhurst has so far taken relatively moderate stands on the state's massive budget shortfall. He's leaving the door open to using money out of the Rainy Day Fund, which Gov. Rick Perry opposes, and backing traditional state Senate filibuster rules that some conservatives unsuccessfully tried to change so the GOP agenda could advance without hindrance.
Asked recently if he feared being labeled a "RINO," or Republican in Name Only, Dewhurst said: "No one that knows anything about my record would ever say that about me. I came in arguably as one of the most conservative lieutenant governors in history."
Dewhurst is resolutely anti-abortion and adamant about not raising taxes despite the budget shortfall. Cathie Adams, the conservative former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, was quick to defend him, saying the wealthy Houston businessman has "stayed true to his conservative ideals." She called the complaints about him "unfounded."
Still, the idea that Dewhurst has been too cozy with the establishment has taken off in some quarters. An influential conservative blogger at the website Redstate.com recently called the powerful lieutenant governor "DewCrist," comparing him to former Florida Gov. Charlie Christ, who lost the Sunshine State governor's race in November after tea party activists flocked to the winning candidacy of Marco Rubio.
"Dewhurst is certainly not the grassroots' favorite," said Dallas tea party activist Ken Emanuelson. "He's just been part of the system." Dewhurst also received a lukewarm reception from U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, a tea party darling whose Senate Conservatives Fund weighed into the race after Hutchison abruptly announced last week she wouldn't run again in 2012.
DeMint warned against electing "liberal or wishy washy Republicans" and said conservatives were more excited about the candidacies of Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz. In recent interviews, neither candidate openly criticized Dewhurst, but touted their own conservatism.
Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, cites his advocacy of the Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds and a landmark gun rights case, among others, when he was the chief lawyer for Texas arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Cruz says it's not enough for Republicans to say they've supported conservative causes but must show how they have "bled for them."
Former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams also is in the GOP race, which could easily draw a dozen or more candidates before primaries that begin in a little more than a year. Whoever the Democrats put up likely will start behind.
While conservatives bite at him, Dewhurst has worked hard to shore up the base. This week, he announced the state Senate on Monday would begin debating legislation strengthening voter identification laws. Conservatives have been pushing such legislation for years, and passage this session seems certain.
Dewhurst also has been bashing Washington at every opportunity, railing against runaway federal government spending and hailing "tea party patriots" during a swearing-in that sounded more like a campaign speech than an inaugural address.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas at Austin, said Dewhurst's personal wealth and name recognition give him an advantage in the Senate race. But Henson noted the race comes at a time when voters value conservative authenticity more than years spent governing.
The fact that Hutchison picked the start of the Texas legislative session to bow out of the 2012 race also allows opponents to take "pot shots" at Dewhurst for the next four months, Henson said.
"The timing certainly doesn't help him," Henson said. "Sen. Hutchison didn't do him any favors."
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.