Does response to West signal a changing of the guard?

Posted Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- When Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott visited the devastation in West after the fertilizer plant explosion, he looked very gubernatorial. And that might not be an accident.

The day after the horrific blast last week, Gov. Rick Perry held a news conference at the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Austin.

He wore casual clothes with an open collar, and flanked by the lieutenant governor and other officials, talked about making sure the state sent whatever was needed to the tiny town best known as a kolaches stop on Interstate 35.

A few hours later, Abbott was the first elected statewide official on the scene wearing a fleece and a serious expression, taking an aerial tour of the damage and returning to brief journalists. In past disasters, that was Perry's job. The governor didn't make it to West until the next day.

Many may ask what role an attorney general plays in responding to an industrial accident. Not much really, though Abbott did take the opportunity to warn local businesses against price gouging for food and shelter.

But his appearance makes a little more sense if you consider that Abbott is widely seen as Perry's chosen successor to the governor's mansion.

Neither man will directly respond to questions about their political futures.

When seated side by side at a news conference earlier this year, Perry promised to announce his intentions after the Legislature adjourns in June.

Abbott smiled and said that sounded like a good time for him to make a decision, too.

Abbott, though, has made no secret of his ambitions, and among top Republicans he is the heir apparent.

He has $18 million in his campaign coffers, has extensively traveled around the state and has raised his profile with unrelenting lawsuits against the Obama administration on everything from abortion laws to environmental regulations to redrawing political maps.

Perry told reporters in Dallas earlier this year that he speaks to Abbott regularly, that they enjoy a warm friendship and that Abbott has promised not to challenge him for the 2014 Republican nomination that is now less than 11 months away.

Abbott's campaign consultant, Eric Bearse, responded mildly saying that he isn't privy to Perry and Abbott's conversations. But Bearse also happens to be a Perry campaign consultant who helped write Perry's book on scouting, On My Honor. He also worked on Perry's presidential campaign.

Bearse declined to comment to The Associated Press on Perry's plans, or if Abbott is preparing a run for governor. But going into his 11th year in office, Abbott is known to be restless for something bigger, and an attorney general candidate doesn't need an $18 million war chest to run virtually unchallenged for re-election.

Those close to Perry fall into two, strangely divided camps.

Some can't imagine the state's longest-serving governor stepping down when the Republican grassroots still adore him. Others think he has acquired a taste of the national stage and will retire to concentrate on running for president again in 2016.

Perry-watchers can find evidence for either case. His failure to declare any emergency items this legislative session -- a first since he took office -- shows that his mind is elsewhere, as does his travel to California and an upcoming trip to Illinois, Democratic states with big Republican donors.

On the other hand, Perry talks about how much he loves his job and how the Texas economy is thriving.

So it is from this fog of uncertainty about Perry's plans that Abbott emerges alone in West, meeting with first responders, comforting the grief-stricken and acting very much like a governor.

If the speculation is true, and Bearse is charged with managing an orderly transition from Perry to Abbott, then Texans may have already witnessed the first act.

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