TEXAS -- Imagine yourself an ambitious politician living in Texas, someone who's dreamed for more than a decade about moving into the governor's mansion.
No matter how hard you've worked, how many hands you've shook and how many babies you've kissed, your ambitions have been frustrated by the tenacity of the longest serving governor in Texas history.
Now, at long last, you've heard the words you've dreamed about hearing. Quoth Rick Perry, "I will not seek re-election as governor of Texas."
The Aggie yell leader from Paint Creek -- who came to Austin as a Democrat, flipped into a Republican, hitched his future to the gifted horse of Karl Rove's political genius, narrowly won over a majority of voters in his election to the lieutenant governor's office, then moved into the governor's mansion when George W. Bush moved into the White House -- announced this week his plans to leave office. Assuming he stays until the end of his term -- sometimes, he's just a little unpredictable -- Rick Perry will have served 14 years as the state's chief executive, longer than any other governor in the nation.
So with Perry's announcement -- and the sudden vulnerability of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst -- Texas Republicans who've impatiently waited for a shake-up at the top of the ballot can finally exercise their long frustrated ambitions. Dewhurst, for example, now has a former ally for an opponent with State Sen. Dan Patrick's decision to run against him. But of course, the biggest prize of all is the governor's job.
One candidate has already declared his candidacy. Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, jumped into the race months ago without waiting for Perry to make up his mind. Pauken entered the campaign knowing he would face either the incumbent or Greg Abbott, the lavishly financed state attorney general.
"I have nothing against Rick or Greg personally, but there's this sort of culture that has developed that's allegiance to the big money folks and the people who write the big checks," Pauken said. "And we're not serious enough in my estimation of doing what we did when I was part of the Reagan Administration. And that was solving problems."
But the widely acknowledged front-runner is Abbott, who's positioned himself to jump onto the stage of this political drama like Perry's understudy. Anybody who doesn't think he has the upper hand in this campaign need only look at his jaw-dropping campaign account -- $18-million in cash, according to the last report he filed with the Texas Ethics Commission in January.
Abbott hasn't yet declared his candidacy -- longtime supporters expect an announcement on Monday at an event in Houston -- but his entry into the race is a foregone conclusion now that Perry's dropping out. His campaign has already produced a slick biographical video narrated by former senator and television star Fred Thompson emphasizing the accident that put him in a wheelchair.
Abbott was jogging one day in 1984 when a tree limb suddenly fell on top of him, leaving him a paraplegic. He's never been shy about telling the story during political campaigns, offering his recovery as a dramatic demonstration of his tenacity. His political consultants realized early in his career that his disability could easily become his most distinctive campaign asset. As a state district judge, he led a very public campaign to make the Harris County Courthouse come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As Texas attorney general, Abbott has sought the spotlight for his constant legal battles against the federal government, bragging that he's sued the Obama Administration 27 times. Don't be surprised to hear that point repeated during campaign commercials, especially in the weeks leading up the Republican primary next March.
"I think Greg Abbott's a patient conservative who found his niche in sitting back and waiting until Rick Perry made his decision to leave public office," said Bob Stein, the Rice Univeristy political scientist and KHOU political analyst. "And his patience has paid off. And his loyalty. He's been loyal to Rick Perry and loyal to the conservative wing of the party."
On the Democratic side, State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth has mentioned she’s taking a second look at running for governor after her star turn filibuster against the anti-abortion bill pending in the Texas Legislature.
But after more than a dozen years of the Perry Era, polls indicate Texas remains staunchly Republican.