Ms. Hutchison, one of the Lone Star State's most popular politicians, was expected to mount a formidable challenge to Mr. Perry in one of the long-anticipated GOP primary battles of next year's elections. The GOP winner is an overwhelming favorite to be the next governor in this Republican state.
But Mr. Perry has built a large lead in polls with less than four months to go to the March 2 primary. In part, he has scored points using what's shaping up as a popular strategy for many candidates during this election cycle, with rhetoric portraying Ms. Hutchison as a Washington insider out of touch with down-home Texans. He also has accused her of waffling on a pledge to resign from her Senate seat, which she had initially said she would do in October or November.
"It really does appear that it is slipping away for her," said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Ms. Hutchison has accused Mr. Perry of not understanding the suffering of many Texans in the recession, among other charges. But political observers say the 16-year Senate veteran, initially elected on an outsider platform in 1993, has found herself swimming against an anti-Washington sentiment among conservative activists that is particularly strong in Texas.
Splitting her time between Texas and Washington has been "a deadly mistake," said Royal Masset, a GOP political consultant in Austin who is not working for either side.
"This could not have been more perfectly set up for Rick Perry," Mr. Masset said. "This election is coming at just the right time for him, when there is this fear of socialism among some Republicans based on what is happening in Washington, and she is seen, fairly or not, as part of that Washington establishment."
Ms. Hutchison initially said she would resign her Senate seat to run. But she also pledged to stay in Washington to cast critical votes against President Barack Obama's health-care and cap-and-trade energy legislation, both of which are unpopular with conservative Texans.
Ms. Hutchison said again last week she would resign -- but not until after the March primary. Mr. Perry's campaign jumped on the comment, suggesting she would not step down at all if she lost. Ms. Hutchison denied that.
"Rick Perry can crow all he wants about standing up to Washington, but there is only one candidate who is fighting against President Obama and his policies," said Hutchison campaign spokesman Joe Pounder.