Thursday was a day of beginnings — and endings — for Texas Republicans gathering at the nation’s largest political convention.
As Rick Perry likely gave his last address as governor to a state convention crowd of thousands, GOP land commissioner nominee George P. Bush gave his first address as a candidate to the Republicans gathered here.
Both had a message for Democrats who have talked about turning Texas blue by voting the GOP out of power.
“National Democrats think Texas is the new battleground,” Perry told the group, many of whom waved “Thanks Rick” signs.
“Let’s be real clear. Texas will be their political burial ground.”
Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, kicked off the three-day state convention, geared toward boosting party unity and building momentum for the November general election.
After the speeches, work continued on both a set of rules to guide the party and a controversial party platform, with proposals ranging from a visa program for illegal immigrants to the elimination of some anti-gay language.
Before they conclude deliberations Saturday, delegates will also weigh in on the 2016 presidential race, hoping that the results of a straw poll will influence voters nationwide.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth — the Democratic candidate for governor — sent notes and a video promoting her work in this city to delegates on Twitter.
“Welcome to my hometown of Fort Worth, #RPTCON14” she tweeted. “I hope you enjoy all this great city has to offer.”
The gathering at the Fort Worth Convention Center has drawn national attention for issues such as the denial of information booths for gay-rights groups, a move to review and possibly change the immigration plank in the party platform, and plans to openly carry guns in and around the center.
Time to shine
Many saw Perry’s speech as an informal farewell, a moment to shine for a man who has held statewide office since 1991.
A video tribute to the 14-year governor traced his political work, back to his first bid for the Texas House.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” Perry told the crowd with a grin.
After the speech, few believed that Perry, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, is ending his political career.
His wife, Anita, told the crowd that they both have “some tread left on our tires.”
Even Perry noted that, along with more wrinkles and graying hair, he now has “a seasoned perspective.”
Instead of saying goodbyes, Perry talked about Texas, its accomplishments and its potential.
He spoke of years of work to bring tax relief and tort reform and to limit government regulations to help businesses grow and thrive.
“We are optimistic, resilient, hardworking … [and] we never faced a challenge we couldn’t meet or a fate we couldn’t accept,” Perry said.
And he focused on changes needed in Washington, D.C., criticizing the Affordable Care Act and the government’s inability to meet all the medical needs of veterans.
“If you need any greater proof that government-run healthcare doesn’t work, ask a military veteran,” Perry said to loud cheers.
He did note that Texans need to keep putting Republicans in office, such as sending Greg Abbott to the Governor’s Mansion and returning John Cornyn to the Senate.
“We need to set the stage for 2016, when we will win the White House and we will rebuild the American dream,” Perry told the crowd. “We’re too good a country to wander through the wilderness of economic darkness. We must seize our promise at home. We must establish our moral authority overseas.
“We must live up to our promise again.”
Perry and Bush were the highlights of a day when work continued in committees as delegates debated and developed both the platform and rules to guide the party.
The platform continued to evolve. Media reports showed that Abbott — the attorney general — and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, helped craft a revamped immigration plank that calls for more border security and a visa program that would essentially let illegal immigrants serve as guest workers.
Some delegates have said they are not satisfied with their party’s choice two years ago to approve a controversial softer approach, the Texas Solution, which includes a guest worker program, fearing it could open the door to amnesty.
Others say the plank is crucial to the party’s future and its ability to attract the fastest-growing population group in the state: Hispanics.
A key change is dropping the phrase guest worker and instead referring to a visa program to let illegal immigrants still hold jobs here.
Work also continued on the plank addressing homosexuality.
Two gay-rights groups that were denied a booth at the convention — the Metroplex Republicans and the Log Cabin Republicans — have asked for wording to be removed that says “the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit.”
Some phrasing has been deleted, but the platform would still oppose homosexuality and define marriage as being between one woman and one man.
Some party members have said that these issues — no matter how they come out of committee — could trigger a floor fight when all the delegates consider the platform Saturday.
“There is nothing wrong with passionately disagreeing with your neighbor,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party. “It’s just how we fight.”
At the same time, he encouraged delegates to save the bulk of their fighting for Democrats.
“This battle for 2014 is only the warm-up act for 2016,” he said. “It is not my goal to beat the Democrats. It is my goal to crush” them.
A new beginning
Bush — who has one of the most recognizable names and is far from new to the political process — spoke to the convention as a candidate for the first time Thursday.
He received a warm welcome and standing ovations.
Then he noted that he and Davis have something in common: Fort Worth is their hometown.
But he said he had good news for the crowd.
“Today is one day closer to Election Day,” he said. “That means we are one day closer to making sure she stays here in Fort Worth.”
He noted that Battleground Texas is trying to turn the state Democratic by reaching out to two demographics: Hispanics and young people.
“I happen to know a little something about these two groups,” Bush said with a grin. “I am these two groups.”
He spoke about successes in Texas in encouraging the economy to flourish.
And he noted that he would like to see leaders nationwide follow Texas’ model.
“Texas works. Washington, D.C., does not,” he said. “We don’t need to change Texas. We need to change Washington, D.C.”