Bad blood between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison could shape 2012 race

In the six days since he jumped into the Republican nomination race, Rick Perry has cast himself as a unifying force in the party, a candidate who can appeal to both social conservatives and members of the tea party.

Yet the biggest test of Perry's candidacy could be whether he can make nice with rivals back in Texas, who could derail the governor's bid for the nomination.

Among the people who could be a major headache for Perry: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who tried and failed to unseat Perry during last year's contentious Texas Republican gubernatorial primary.

Being a good GOP soldier, Hutchison later endorsed Perry ahead of the state's general election--but it was an awkward event, in which it was pretty clear that neither candidate had gotten over ill feelings left over from the primary. In recent months, as Perry began laying the groundwork for a 2012 run, tensions between the two surfaced again.

While Hutchison hasn't specifically attacked Perry's record, the senator hasn't gone out of her way to say anything nice, either. She declined to be interviewed in a Texas Monthly round-up of what it's like to run against Perry. And on the rare occasions she has talked about her 2010 rival, Hutchison has repeatedly refused to say whether she'll endorse him--a break in the political protocol that usually prompts top state party officials to unite behind their home son.

"I'm looking for the candidate that has had real business experience. I am looking for Gov. Perry's opinions on federal issues. I don't know what they are, because he's been critical of the federal government, but I don't know what his positions would be," Hutchison told MSNBC's Chuck Todd in an interview last month.

Hutchison's office did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Republican sources, who declined to be named discussing private wrangling in the 2012 GOP race, tell The Ticket that the Texas senator's endorsement has become one of the biggest "gets" of the GOP primary.

In recent weeks, allies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have wooed Hutchison--as did members of Tim Pawlenty's campaign, before he dropped out last weekend--all in hopes of embarrassing Perry on his home turf and landing a key critic who has a store of political ammunition against the Texas governor.

Privately, a Republican close to the Perry operation, who also declined to be named on the record, insists Hutchison's critique of Perry can be neutralized by simply pointing out she's his former opponent and "has an axe to grind." (Indeed, the governor's campaign pulled a similar move this week by pointing to a blog post that revealed a Wall Street Journal editorial critical of Perry had been written by a former Hutchison intern.)

Still, Republicans friendly with both Perry and Hutchison say there have been back channel efforts in recent months to thaw the ice between the two Texas Republicans. According to one Perry ally, it's not an effort necessarily aimed at convincing Hutchison to back Perry in the GOP primary--but one urging her to at least to "keep her powder dry," the Perry supporter told The Ticket.

A spokesman for the Texas governor declined to comment.

Hutchison, for her part, has publicly said she's unsure who she'll support in the primary--or when she might announce her endorsement. In 2008, she waited until late in the divisive GOP race to back John McCain's bid for the nomination--announcing her support just days before the Texas GOP primary.

There's a chance she might run out the clock again--but with Perry in the race, Hutchison will no doubt be under pressure to show her cards early.