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Can Kay Run a Tough Campaign?

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For most of this decade, Kay Bailey Hutchison has been the most popular politician in Texas. The conventional wisdom in Austin posited that if and when she ever challenged Rick Perry in a GOP primary, she would wipe the floor with him.

Now? Not so much.

Another poll is out today showing Perry with a double-digit lead on the senior U.S. Senator from Texas — the second such finding this month. This time it’s a 12-point edge.

Harvey has some details. Burka, who until recently was promoting Hutchison as the favorite, seems despondent. He writes that Kay is running the “worst campaign imaginable.”

I’ve always doubted that Hutchison would trounce Perry. And for one simple reason: When was the last time she won a competitive election?

Campaigning is different than governing. The ability to create, manage and maintain a well-organized and lean campaign operation in the middle of a tough election is a rare, practiced skill. Many politicians, even the most popular and experienced, will falter in their first hotly contested race. The examples are numerous, from the national level (Bob Dole and Hillary Clinton) to the state level (Rick Noriega).

Hutchison’s recent reelection efforts have been relaxing affairs. In 2006, she barely had to campaign to double-up her Democratic opponent, Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who was so lacking in funds that she took to creating Web-only ads that featured the candidate conversing with a sock puppet. (BTW, I’ve been trying to track down those sock-puppet ads. If anyone has a link where I can find them, please, please send it to me.)

We know Perry will run a lean, mean race. He knows who his voters are and how to excite them. It’s his best skill.

Can Hutchison do that? The early returns don’t look promising for her.

For his part, Burka clings to Kay’s still-stratospheric favorability ratings (65 percent favorable; 17 percent unfavorable). But that seems like fool’s gold to me. Hutchison’s favorability numbers will come crashing down once Perry’s campaign gets rolling and the race gets nastier.

Hutchison will have to improve as a campaigner as she goes. There’s still time to turn herself from a comfortably sitting senator into a disciplined candidate with a well-run organization that can turn out her type of voters. It’s a tough transition to make — and one that Hillary Clinton couldn’t pull off, at least not in time to save her campaign. If Hutchison can do it, she has a chance.

But right now she appears cautious and disorganized, and Perry is taking her to school.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.