Early voting begins Tuesday as candidates blaze the campaign trail

FORT WORTH -- Hoping to fire up supporters as early voting in the gubernatorial race begins today, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison kicked off a "Declare Your Independence" tour Monday, encouraging Texas voters to declare their independence from Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Hutchison will be among several candidates casting their ballots today to bring attention to early voting. March 2, the date of the primary election, is also Texas' Independence Day.

"I'm asking for your vote and I'm asking for your help," Hutchison told a crowd of more than 40 gathered in a back room at Billy Miner's Saloon in downtown Fort Worth, where she was joined by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, a longtime friend; U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth; and other supporters. "I will be a governor who never forgets who she works for."

Perry, Hutchison and Debra Medina, a Wharton businesswoman and tea party activist, top the primary ticket for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Seven Democrats are vying for their party's nomination: former Houston Mayor Bill White, Houston hair-care magnate Farouk Shami, teacher Felix Alvarado, physician Alma Aguado, college professor Clement Glenn, private investigator Bill Dear and rancher Star Locke.

Down-ballot, there are primary races at all levels of government, from the U.S. House of Representatives to Tarrant County justice of the peace.

As Hutchison was in Fort Worth on Monday, some protesters showed up at her Dallas office, charging that she's "not pro-life." Hutchison said in recent debates that she fears that overturning the Roe v. Wade court decision might create "abortion havens" in some states. She said she has pushed for restrictions on abortions and has a 94 percent rating from the national anti-abortion community.

Perry was in Plano, speaking at a 10th Amendment Town Hall meeting hosted by the Texas Conservative Coalition, a caucus in the Texas Legislature. The 10th Amendment protects states' rights.

Perry told the crowd that it's time for Texans and others to stand up for their rights.

"It is well past time for us to halt the endless intrusions into our lives, put a stop to the out-of-control spending and restore our commitment to a set of shared values: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he said. "It's time for the federal government to be less intrusive and more respectful of the wishes of the states and their citizens."

Meanwhile, Medina was brushing off "coordinated negative attacks" by Perry and Hutchison. Last week, during an interview with conservative radio host Glenn Beck, Medina didn't immediately dismiss a theory about possible government involvement in 9-11.

"Distract and divert is exactly what career politicians do when their record is examined and We Texans should be angry," Medina said in a written release.

In 2006, the last gubernatorial election, 3,636 Democrats and 14,171 Republicans voted early in Tarrant County. In 2008's presidential primaries, 86,559 Democrats and 35,620 Republicans voted early in Tarrant County, local election results show.

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn has said as much as 20 percent of the local electorate could turn out for the primaries, which would be down from 34 percent in the 2008 presidential primary but up from 7 percent from 2006.

ANNA M. TINSLEY, 817-390-7610