Gov. Rick Perry would defeat Attorney General Greg Abbott by a nearly 3-to-1 margin if a Republican gubernatorial primary were held today, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.
Such a contest might never come: Neither man has declared for that 2014 race, with each saying he will wait until June or later to make a public announcement of his political plans. Perry recently said they have talked and that Abbott wouldn't run if the governor sought re-election. But just as the 2010 election year was preceded by speculation of a contest between Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, will-they-or-won't-they talk about Perry and Abbott has become an unavoidable subject in the state's political parlors.
Among all voters, Perry would get 27 percent to Abbott's 14 percent, with another 28 percent saying they haven't thought about it enough to have an opinion and the rest saying they don't vote in Republican primaries. Among respondents who identified themselves as Republicans, Perry got 49 percent to Abbott's 17 percent, with 31 percent saying they have no opinion.
"There's a little bit of good news for everybody here," said Daron Shaw, co-director of the UT/TT Poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "For an incumbent who has been in office for a long time and who is coming off a really problematic run for president, these numbers are pretty good.
"Abbott has a lot of room to grow," Shaw said. "If you look at the people who don't want to vote for Perry or who want to wait and see, Abbott's numbers are very high with those people."
The horse-race numbers cloak some of the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the candidates.
"You can rule out the idea that Perry is just dead," Shaw said. "You can't reach that conclusion. But you also can't say he's just unbeatable, relative to Abbott."
Abbott outdid the governor when it came to voters' impressions of officeholders. Voters were divided in their impressions of Perry, the better known of the two, with 41 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of the governor and 42 percent saying they have an unfavorable opinion. His foes feel fervently about him: 30 percent said they have a "very unfavorable" opinion, while 18 percent registered a "very favorable" opinion. And only 5 percent of the poll respondents said they didn't have an opinion of the governor.
Abbott, in contrast, is less well known, but is seen more favorably by those who do know him. Asked how they view him, 29 percent said they have no opinion at all, while 29 percent view him favorably and 18 percent view him unfavorably.
"A lot of people don't know who he is, but those who do are overwhelmingly positive," said Jim Henson, co-director of the survey and head of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin. "If you know about Greg Abbott right now and you have an opinion, it's generally positive. That's a huge advantage."
A contest between the governor and the attorney general would probably start with a race between the candidates to describe Abbott to the voters who don't know him. Perry, meanwhile, could be forced to fend off a challenge of the kind he used to sink Hutchison and that Ted Cruz used to sinkDavid Dewhurst in last year's GOP primary for U.S. Senate -- challenges based in part on long service in government and legislative records not shared by Cruz and Perry, the ultimate winners in those contests.
Still, Perry has been in the top job for a dozen years, and some indicators of his political health are strong.
"He's still popular among the Republican base. He has high favorables among Republicans," Henson said. "And the people that like him are still willing to vote for him."
Perry polled better against Abbott than he did against himself. Asked whether they would vote for another term for the governor in 2014 --without naming another candidate -- 26 percent said yes, 36 percent said no, and 33 percent said they would wait and see who is running against him.
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