GOP gubernatorial candidates spar in TV debate

January 29, 2010 9:25:27 PM PST
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and political activist Debra Medina ganged up on front-running Gov. Rick Perry on Friday in the final televised debate before the March 2 Republican gubernatorial primary. Both women sought to undermine Perry's record on the economy by criticizing his oversight of the Texas Enterprise Fund, used to lure companies to Texas. Hutchison characterized the job creation program, begun at Perry's urging in 2003, as a failure and said it lacked transparency.

Medina leveled an even harsher attack on the fund -- and Perry.

"He takes from us so that he can play with his corporate slush fund and award his friends' businesses," Medina said. "He hasn't understood the proper role of government in Texas."

The attacks came a few days after Perry revealed some enterprise fund contracts had been canceled and others changed to make them more favorable to participating companies. Perry strongly defended the fund, saying the recent changes prove it was working as intended.

"The enterprise fund has clawback provisions that clearly send a message to those individuals -- (if) you don't meet these job growth figures, then you're going to have to pay back money," he said. "I'm really proud of that program."

Perry has repeatedly taken credit for making Texas a bright spot in an otherwise dour U.S. economy. On Friday night he said the budget cuts, curbs on lawsuits and education reforms he has advocated as governor have helped set the stage for the state's relatively strong business climate.

The governor also unleashed a series of attacks on Washington, and Hutchison by extension, saying the federal government had cheated Texas out of transportation funds and failed to adequately secure the southern border.

"The failure of Washington, D.C. to spend the money, to send the troops, to do what is required to defend our borders is absolutely an abomination in my opinion," he said.

Hutchison said Perry wasn't being honest about the state's problems, faulting the governor for the high dropout rate, a failed statewide transportation plan and a culture of "cronyism" in Austin.

"It was because there were lobbyists that were first, not the people of Texas," Hutchison said. "We've got to stop it and it will only be done with a new governor."

As in the last debate, Hutchison found herself on the hot seat on the issue of abortion. She reiterated her support for restrictions on abortions but acknowledged she opposed overturning Roe v. Wade.

Hutchison said she was "very concerned about what would happen" if the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion was overturned. At the same time, she touted her belief in parental consent for minors seeking abortions and her support for bans on late-term abortions.

The GOP trio appeared at a televised debate earlier this month in Denton. Original plans for Friday's event had excluded Medina, but organizers cited a public opinion poll showing the feisty conservative had enough voter support to meet their criteria for inclusion. The same poll showed Perry leading Hutchison by 10 points.

Medina promotes the view that Texas doesn't have to put up with mandates from Washington and can assert its sovereignty more aggressively through legal "nullification" of federal mandates on environmental protection, health care, guns and other areas. She hasn't ruled out Texas seceding from the United States and forming an independent nation.

Though she focused most of her ire at Perry, she went after Hutchison in somewhat dramatic closing remarks, raising the specter of "economic ruin" wrought by the two Republican heavyweights. "Together they're a team of economic tricksters intent on destroying our freedoms and selling Texas to the highest bidder," Medina said.

Perry and Hutchison declined to take questions from reporters after the debate. Medina criticized her opponents as not wanting "to have a discussion with Texans."

Houston businessman Farouk Shami and former Houston Mayor Bill White are the top candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. The Democratic and Republican contenders who emerge from the primaries will face off in November.