During tonight's debate, sponsored by The Dallas Morning News and Belo Corp. television stations, she is again ready to challenge the state's Republican titans, Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Medina's message: that she is the sole straight-talking, steadfast conservative.
As her poll numbers hover around 12 percent, there is a growing belief that Medina, a Wharton nurse and businesswoman, could force a runoff between Perry and Hutchison, continuing a costly fight and weakening the eventual nominee. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in the March 2 primary, the top two finishers will face off April 13.
Few believe she could surpass either Hutchison or Perry and make the runoff, but the Ron Paul-Tea Party upstart is carving out her own highly loyal and vocal following, showing fault lines in the Republican Party. She is pulling support, it appears, from both Perry and Hutchison, who are finding it much more difficult to ignore her.
Shaw pointed to the 1992 presidential race in which Dallas billionaire Perot ran against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton on a platform of fiscal responsibility. Perot polled well in conservative states, such as Utah, as well as in liberal states, such as Maine, taking from both the Republicans and Democrats.
Medina's support is probably coming from Perry's highly cultivated conservative pockets – gun-rights, state-sovereignty, Tea Party loyalists – and from Hutchison's target of voters looking for a change and fatigued by Perry's long tenure, Shaw said.
The two leaders are beginning to take notice.
Perry, asked Thursday about his opponent criticizing his management of the Texas Enterprise Fund, said, "Now, which opponent are you talking about?"
During the first televised debate two weeks ago, Medina did not pull her punch lines.
"Governor, you were a Democrat before you were a Republican, having worked for Al Gore as his state campaign manager; you've broken promises on education, securing our border and property tax reform; you failed to listen to Texans on the Trans Texas Corridor. What evidence can you give Texans that you'll keep your word this time around?" she asked.
Shaw said those kinds of attacks are where she will hurt Perry because, like Perot did to Bush, she is eroding confidence in the incumbent.
"Perot's effect wasn't necessarily evident in the polling numbers; it was the way he changed the underlying perception of reality – that was that incumbents are incompetent, they've ruined things, they've made a mess and we have to change things," Shaw said.
Medina is saying Perry should be fired, and she is making the case more forcefully than Hutchison might dare, Shaw said.
Medina campaign manager Penny Langford Freeman said the initial aim for Medina was to attract independents "who were fed up with the status quo and career politicians."
They have found a lot of middle-class conservatives are responding – "the people who are feeling the abuse of big government," she said.
She said Republican women, Hispanics and Tea Party organizers are coming on board. Medina spends her days talking to small gatherings that are growing to 100 people at a time at Rotary Clubs and coffeehouse meet-and-greets.
After the first debate, the campaign pulled in $100,000 in unsolicited donations, Freeman said. Medina has benefited particularly from a strong online following, as Paul did in his 2008 presidential campaign.
Medina's platform reflects an ideological purity, though not necessarily what is politically possible.
Her ideas would be to roll back federal laws through court challenges so Texas would repeal congressional mandates and allow Texas to make its own rules on gun ownership, environmental safety, energy policy and trade treaties. She has flirted with secessionist talk.
She shares Libertarian ideas on decriminalizing drugs. She would do away with property taxes and instead precipitously raise and expand sales taxes.
Shelley Brian, a grade school teacher in Beaumont, heard Medina speak before a small group in a friend's home. But she was sold during the debate.
Hutchison and Perry have "gotten all caught up in the glitz and glamour," Brian said.
She considers herself conservative, but three years ago, she voted against Perry, she said. Now, she can't bring herself to vote for Hutchison.
"It's time for a change," Brian said. "People are tired of big government. Every time I turn around there's a new tax, a new law, a new provision."
Kent Bicknell, who runs a Dallas investment firm, said he considers Medina an ideological conservative and likes her she-bear protection of state sovereignty.
She might find governing more difficult once on the inside, and Bicknell said he's hesitant to fully support someone who is still polling as spoiler. But he has given her $25, and if her numbers improve, he would consider a stronger commitment.
"I've not soured on Perry. I'm disappointed with some of his stances," Bicknell said. "But I'd vote for Medina if she began to have enough of a following."
Even if the Medina camp is raising 10 times less in campaign money than Perry and Hutchison, the campaign is making up for it in confidence. Medina and her aides believe they can win.
The message is about freedom from government, and that inspires support, Freeman said.
"We're hoping, and our target and our first priority is to win outright. Then we'll take a second, being one of the runoff candidates," she said.
Time and place: 7 p.m. in Dallas
Featuring: Kay Bailey Hutchison, Debra Medina and Rick Perry
Moderator: John McCaa of WFAA-TV (Channel 8), with questions posed by Texas journalists, including Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News
Topics: No set topics, but issues in the race for governor
Where to find it: On Channel 8 or streamed live at dallasnews.com
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Here's a look at the playbook for each of the candidates:
Hutchison: Should continue trying to explain why Texas would be better off without Rick Perry and give solid reasons why GOP voters should dump the incumbent. Must show deficiencies in his administration without sideswiping the entire Republican Party or sounding like a Democratic rival. Must answer questions about social issues, particularly her position on abortion, in a crisp, coherent manner. In the last debate, she struggled with a yes-or-no question on abortion. Best to answer it and move on.
Medina: Opponents have tried to ignore her, but her confidence, smarts and approachability make that hard to do. If the others turn to squabbling, which is highly likely, she must look like the adult in the room. Must continue to drive home the argument that Austin needs fresh leadership willing to shrink government, that Perry needs to be fired and that replacing him with Hutchison would be more of the same.
Perry: Ahead in the polls by double digits, he needs to keep an upbeat attitude and underscore that his experience makes him the best candidate to see the state forward. Will be under attack by both Hutchison and Medina, and as the incumbent, he has the most to defend. Must keep an even keel and not make a big mistake by losing his temper, getting snippy or misstating facts.
From Dallas Morning News staff reports