WASHINGTON, March 2, 2010 -- When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison signaled she was challenging fellow Republican Rick Perry for governor of Texas shortly after the 2008 election, the conventional wisdom was that the veteran senator, who has won all her elections with at least 60 percent of the vote, might pose a real threat to Perry, who was re-elected four years ago with just 39 percent of the vote.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this Lone Star shoot-out: Perry, who enjoys the support of Sarah Palin, effectively nationalized the race and turned Hutchison's Washington experience against her.
The incumbent governor has fared so well, in fact, that Texas Monthly Magazine recently floated the prospect that he might run for president in 2012.
"We all know the old line that all politics is local," Wayne Slater, a veteran political reporter for the Dallas Morning News, told ABCNews.com's "Top Line" on Monday. "This year, it seems that politics is really national."
As voters go to the polls today in Texas, the big question is not whether Perry will be re-nominated but whether Hutchison and a third candidate, Debra Medina, will force Perry into extra innings. An April 13 runoff between the top two vote-getters will be required if no candidate garners a majority in today's vote.
Although most incumbent governors are struggling around the country, local observers say Perry has the upper-hand in this GOP primary fight for two reasons: first, the Texas economy is stronger than the economy of most other states; second, Perry, who has flirted with the idea of secession, has tapped into the anti-Washington sentiment brewing around the country.
"Rick Perry saw very early on that this Washington Tea Party movement, this anti-Washington uprising, was very effective and he framed the campaign that way," Slater said. "'Kay Bailey Hutchison is Washington and all things bad about Washington. I am Texas. State sovereignty. The 10th Amendment. States' rights.' That has been very successful."
Perry Pegs Hutchison as Washington Insider
Hutchison, who has won endorsements from former Vice President Dick Cheney and former President George H.W. Bush, has focused her campaign against Perry on three issues: a revolving door of aides-turned-lobbyists, the governor's unsuccessful push for toll roads and a short-lived plan to mandate vaccinations for girls against the cancer-causing HPV virus.
After months of promising that she was going to resign her Senate seat so that she could focus on the governor's race, Hutchison announced in November that she was going to remain in Washington so that she could continue "fighting against ObamaCare and cap-and-trade legislation."
The equivocation on Hutchison's part played into Perry's playbook and gave him additional ammo with which to tie her to Washington.
The question of whether Perry will be forced into a run-off depends on the electoral strength of Medina, a favorite of some Tea Party activists.
Medina turned in strong debate performances but hurt her stance recently when she told Glenn Beck's radio show that the conspiracy theorists who say the federal government was involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "have some very good arguments." She subsequently retracted the statement, but local observers say it may hurt her support.
Texas Republicans are not the only ones holding a gubernatorial primary today.
On the Democratic side, former Houston Mayor Bill White is a big favorite to win his party's nomination over Houston hair-care magnate Farouk Shami.
Democrats say they are hoping the hard-fought GOP primary will give them a shot come November in this Republican stronghold.
White, who has cultivated a business-friendly image, has $5.4 million on hand, compared with $2.5 million for Perry and nearly $2.3 million for Hutchison.
"Rick Perry will go after him as 'Sanctuary Bill.' Sanctuary city. That he's not very good on abortion and that he's a liberal Democrat and that he's a friend of Obama," Slater said. "But this guy Bill White is a kind of boring 'Mr. Fix It' character -- might be exactly what the electorate wants to see in Texas after a decade of Rick Perry."
ABC News' Matt Loffman contributed to this report.