Rick 'N' Rita
Gov. Perry weathers the storm ... of public opinion
Save for the surreal images of 100-mile traffic jams and the charred remains of a bus that caught fire, killing 24 elderly evacuees, Gov. Rick Perry appears to have weathered Hurricane Rita with only a few nicks and scratches, politically speaking. And he has the lessons of Katrina to thank in large part.
But we'll see what the next round of poll numbers shows. Clearly, for most of the nearly 20,000 people who took shelter in Austin area schools and churches over the weekend, the experience was sheer hell. Whether their suffering will be reflected in the next poll remains to be seen. Just a few weeks before Rita struck the Gulf Coast, Perry's approval rating had dropped 12 points to a sorry 39%, according to the results of a Scripps-Howard Texas Poll released the first week of September. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults between Aug. 22 and Sept. 3, and carried a margin of error of 3%. Perry scored somewhat more favorably among Republican voters, with 46% saying they would vote for him if the GOP primary were held today, while 28% said they would vote for Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the state comptroller and Perry's chief Republican rival for governor. Overall, though, poll participants gave Strayhorn a 47% approval rating.
Kelly Fero, a Democratic strategist and frequent Perry critic, summed up the GOP political standings this way: "Rick benefited from Katrina by learning what not to do [with Rita]. And it would have been hard to perform worse than the officials involved with the first storm, although [Louisiana Gov. Kathleen] Blanco appears to have given it a good try. Second," he added, "the fact that Strayhorn's campaign had already collapsed and Rick's major fall  opponent was out of the race gave him the flexibility to be more statesmanlike and less political."
Fero was referring to his friend and former boss John Sharp, a Democrat who had considered jumping into the governor's race until last week, when Perry put him in charge of a bipartisan effort to restructure the Texas tax system and find a new funding source for public schools (see "Perry Keeps His Friends Close and His Enemies Closer"). Sharp said his new role effectively takes him out of the running, without ever stepping in. Then again, if Perry and Sharp disagree on which direction to take on taxes, Sharp can always rethink his options since the filing deadline for candidates isn't until Jan. 2. In the same Scripps-Howard poll, 16% of Democratic voters said they would support Sharp for governor; 10% favored former U.S. Congressman Chris Bell of Houston, and 8% favored Felix Alvarado, an assistant Fort Worth school principal.