Before Rick Perry can parlay his tea party-powered victory in the Texas governor's primary into something bigger — a 2012 Republican presidential ticket, perhaps — he'll have to actually win a record-setting, third four-year term.
Doing that will require beating Bill White, the former Houston mayor who might be the only Democrat with the cash and base of support to counter Perry's Texas swagger and cutthroat campaign style and end his undefeated streak at the ballot box.
"This will be the toughest race that Rick Perry has ever been in," said Craig Varoga, a Houston-based political consultant who has known the mild-mannered White for years.
Perry, who defeated Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the GOP primary Tuesday with a relentless anti-Washington message, plans to keep up that theme ahead of the November general election. He'll say that White aligned himself with President Barack Obama on issues like health care and climate change and try to paint the ex-mayor as a "liberal Democrat trial lawyer that's out of touch with mainstream Texans," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner.
The Perry game plan also centers on raising questions about Houston's city finances while portraying it as too friendly with illegal immigrants, Perry associates say.
"We're going to find out if Bill White can take the punch," said Marc Campos, a political consultant who worked for a candidate running against White in the nonpartisan mayor's race. "It's going to be interesting how he reacts to a full-fledged negative campaign against him. He's never done that. He's never had to go through something like this."
It appears that White is already trying to beat Perry to the punch.
The day after he easily defeated six Democratic primary opponents, White confronted Perry's anti-Washington message head-on, calling it a distraction from his failed record as governor on issues like job losses and the high school dropout rate. White, a former U.S. deputy energy secretary, said he's the one who knows how to work with Washington and get results, citing his dealings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency when hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike hit the Gulf Coast.
"Perry is more interested in the angry headline," White told reporters. "Tell me one case where over the last year Gov. Perry has been effective in changing the policy of this administration in D.C."
Varoga predicted that White will react swiftly if he's painted as a "dangerous Democrat tied to Obama."
"We're not going to see a lot of glitz, but he's not going to be a candidate who sits there and lets Rick Perry distort his record," Varoga said. "This is going to be a very competitive race."
While White lacks Perry's pizazz, Varoga said the former mayor's strengths are his bipartisan appeal, his pragmatic approach to governing and his ability to raise money. Many who have underestimated White have lost, he said.
While Perry is famous for his back-slapping, traditional Texas image, White is seen as serious about big issues and handling crises. He's been known to delve into a book about the complexities of public school finance to talk about education policy at a city meeting.
"He's probably one of the smartest guys you'll ever meet," Campos said. "He's very knowledgeable about the issues."
White, who grew up in San Antonio, spent considerable time during his primary visiting the Rio Grande Valley, a Democratic stronghold, and showing his knowledge of Spanish. It also helps him to have a support base in Houston, the state's largest city.
The lawyer and energy business executive was elected Houston mayor in 2003 in the costliest mayoral race in the city's history. He was re-elected twice with large margins until term limits forced him out.
White also can match Perry's large sums of campaign cash — a key factor needed to win a gubernatorial race in a state of 24 million people where television ads can cost more than $1 million a week to air in all markets. White quipped on Wednesday that Perry's vulnerability is his record in office, but admitted "he does good TV commercials."
Still, even though White is the Democratic Party's best hope in years, no Democrat has been elected to statewide office in Texas since 1994.
Perry has never lost a race in his 25 years. He was promoted from lieutenant governor to governor when George W. Bush left Austin to become president. In 2002, he defeated Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez, a banker and businessman who spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money. Perry was re-elected in 2006 and during that term became Texas' longest-serving chief executive.
As usual, Perry is expected to run another disciplined campaign and relish in his role as a candidate, said consultant and lobbyist Luis Saenz, who managed Perry's winning campaign in 2006.
"The governor has so much energy, loves being in crowds," Saenz said. "It's all natural for him."
Though Perry has adamantly denied he has 2012 aspirations, he also knows Texas remains a conservative state overall, which could give him a platform as a national party standard-bearer.
He is a darling of the growing tea party movement and surrounds himself with nationally prominent Republicans like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and ex-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, both of whom campaigned for him.
"I think the message is pretty clear: Conservatism has never been stronger than it is today," Perry said Tuesday after claiming the primary victory. "We're taking our country back, one vote at a time, one election at a time."
Associated Press writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.
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