AUSTIN, Texas – For Republicans eager to lead Texas after Gov. Rick Perry finally steps aside in 2014, there's one easy way to describe their campaign blunders so far: Oops.
Attorney General Greg Abbott, the early favorite to replace Perry, thanked a supporter who tweeted that likely Democratic challenger Wendy Davis was a "retard Barbie." Top Abbott strategist Dave Carney, who ran Perry's failed White House bid in 2012, himself tweeted the headline of an article that said Davis was "too stupid" to be governor.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, facing a fierce GOP primary challenge for his seat, was trying to show his conservative mettle at a debate this week when he said he doesn't put Democrats in charge of "critical committees." Among his Senate panels helmed by Democrats: Veteran Affairs.
All are unforced errors by GOP front-runners that any political opponent would relish – especially Texas Democrats, who need all the help they can get to lessen the long odds next year of the party winning a statewide office for the first time in 20 years.
But as they wait for Davis' expected Oct. 3 announcement that she will run, they're left without a candidate to pounce on their rivals' missteps.
"When Todd Akin made a misstep, at least there was Claire McCaskill to take an opportunity," said Democratic strategist Matt Glazer of the Austin-based Glazer Group. He was referring to the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Missouri when Akin, a Republican, doomed his candidacy by saying that women's bodies have a way of shutting down during "legitimate" rape.
"If there were a candidate already announced, you can fundraise off it. You can get endorsements off of it," Glazer said. "But to do that, you have to be the counterpoint to the Republican alternative."
Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, is not seeking re-election after 14 years in office. But a trip this week to Maryland, which included a stop at a gun manufacturer, continues fueling speculation that he may again run for president in 2016. Doing so would mean shaking off the gaffe that sunk his candidacy in 2011, when Perry forgot the name of the third federal agency he would abolish during a debate and simply muttered "oops."
Backlash over the retweets from Abbott's camp and Dewhurst's choice of words was mostly led by Democratic activists. Both Republicans, however, still responded this week. Asked about Carney's "too stupid" tweet during a campaign stop in suburban Austin, Abbott distanced himself.
"I disagree with that statement and we're going to make sure that this campaign focuses on the real issues that matter to Texans," Abbott said.
In August, Abbott wrote "thanks for your support" to a backer who tweeted that Davis was a "retard Barbie." Abbott has said he did not see the comment while firing of gratitude to supporters and rebuked the language in the tweet.
Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who is rumored to be weighing a run for lieutenant governor and chairs the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs, sent Dewhurst a letter this week criticizing his characterization of the panels he leaves in the hands of Democrats.
"As a Democrat in the state of Texas, I would understand if you attacked me personally at a Republican political debate. However, I take great exception with dismissing the work of the committee which I chair," Van de Putte wrote.
A spokesman for Dewhurst responded with a statement asserting his support for veterans and their families.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the tweets will only haunt Abbott if it becomes a pattern. Davis shot to national fame this summer during an 11-hour filibuster that temporarily delayed the passage of tighter abortion restrictions in Texas, and Democrats have accused Republicans of waging a war on women with the new laws.
Jones said the issue is a delicate one for the Texas GOP. Barring a female Republican candidate getting in a race, Jones said the party will go into 2014 without at least one female candidate running for one of the state's top six executive posts for the first time since 1986.
But being so early in the campaign season, hardly all rank-and-file voters are noticing the slip-ups, anyway.
Lisa Sneed, a Republican who said she owned a cupcake bakery near Dallas that was frequented by Perry, was not even aware of the miscues by Abbott and Dewhurst. She is a strong supporter of Abbott, but said she hoped he was careful with Davis in the months ahead.
"I love Gov. Perry. I love him. But he is not a good public speaker. He does not have a gauge, a filter, between the brain and the mouth," Sneed said. "Abbott can improvise when he's speaking. He's a whole lot more natural than Perry.
"But I don't think you ever count anybody out."