WASHINGTON – In a Texas-size political chess game, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (search) is playing the role of queen. She plans to announce this summer whether she'll try to hold her Senate seat in 2006 or challenge fellow Republican Rick Perry (search) for Texas governor.
In the meantime, a long line of officials and political hopefuls are plotting their next moves depending on which way she jumps.
"She holds the key," said Rep. Henry Bonilla (search), a Republican from San Antonio.
Bonilla, who wanted Phil Gramm's seat when the former senator retired in 2001, already has announced he'll seek the Senate seat if Hutchison moves on. He plans to run for his House seat if she stays.
Democrats are watching as well. Some believe a nasty gubernatorial Republican primary — which could also include state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (search), a frequent Perry critic — would increase their candidate's chances in the general election.
"This is the biggest potential shake-up in Texas politics," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The last similar situation was in 1993 when Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen resigned to become Treasury secretary. His departure triggered a 24-candidate, all-party primary that Hutchison won.
"When a very senior position, particularly a Senate seat, opens up, every other politician statewide sees an opportunity to move up, and that's what is happening here," Jillson said.
Foremost on everyone's mind is whether Hutchison will challenge Perry and force party loyalists to choose sides.
Perry is considered the favorite among social conservative activists, and some say that could make it difficult for Hutchison.
But Hutchison is highly popular statewide, winning her 2000 re-election with 65 percent of the vote. A recent Scripps Howard Texas Poll showed she had a 67 percent job approval rating that spanned political lines. She also polled better than Perry among Republicans and independents on job performance.
Perry has said he wants Hutchison to stay in Washington.
"It's not good for Texans to have a brutal, expensive, contentious primary and Texas to lose its seniority in the Senate," he said.
Still, Perry's campaign spokesman, Luis Saenz, said the governor's supporters "are well prepared for whatever comes his way."
Former Gov. Bill Clements said in an opinion piece in The Dallas Morning News recently, "If Texas Republicans have a bloodbath in a primary battle between Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry, we are providing the Democrats an opening to make a speedy comeback to political prominence."
Hutchison saw a Perry plot behind Clements' words.
"I think it's very obvious that the Perry campaign is putting things out on a weekly basis to discourage me from running for governor," she said.
On the Democratic side, Chris Bell (search), who lost his 2004 congressional re-election bid in a Houston-area district that was redrawn by Republicans, is considering a run for governor. He welcomes a crowded Republican field.
"It's a tough road regardless, but I do think that most people feel in order for the stars to align correctly for a Democrat it would be very helpful to have a Republican primary," Bell said.
Outside the GOP, musician and author Kinky Friedman (search), running as an independent, is the only announced candidate.
If Hutchison decides to run for governor, the domino effect could be substantial.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has considered a Senate run in previous years and is viewed as a possible candidate for Hutchison's seat. A businessman who made millions in the energy industry, Dewhurst has the personal wealth to finance a race.
A number of Texas officials are considered contenders for Dewhurst's office if it becomes vacant, including Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Bonilla's candidacy for Senate would open his congressional seat and would attract candidates from the Legislature