As you all probably know there is a runoff election for the Republican nomination in the Texas Senate race to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison. Well tonight the two candidates—sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz—sat down for a debate moderated by two local Dallas television reporters. Come November one of them will run against the Democratic runoff winner—in a race between former state Rep. Paul Sadler and Grady Yarbrough (most think Sadler will easily win).

The GOP runoff has turned out to be much closer than had been expected—with polls from each camp (in the last two weeks or so) claiming that their man holds a lead over the other. This runoff has garnered a lot of statewide and national attention and money —something close to $25 million has been spent on the election, with Dewhurst spending nearly $17 million. This expenditure is obvious in Texas, as for months both before the primary and now during the runoff, TV viewers have been barraged with many Dewhurst ads insinuating that Cruz, a former state solicitor general now in private practice, had done legal work for a Chinese client who had allegedly sent jobs overseas and hurt workers here at home. Dewhurst is taking a play from Obama against Romney in order to strike a hit.

From the beginning, the race was pretty ugly , but Cruz—both a Tea Party and Washington pundit favorite—was nonetheless able to force a runoff against the long time Texas politician and multi-millionaire businessman. In the runoff Cruz has raised enough money to fire back at Dewhurst with ads claiming that he supported a state payroll tax and a guest worker program.

The debate was interesting, but the young and politically inexperienced Cruz obviously won the night (by my lights). Still, one wonders if this matters, because as the moderator pointed out, on most of the issues Dewhurst and Cruz share similar positions. They both claim to be fiscal conservatives who are strong on defense, wish to secure the border with Mexico, and are in favor of repealing Obamacare. Dewhurst has the name recognition, but tonight it was the personal differences that seemed to matter.

In the debate Cruz appeared to be ready to discuss the issues and defend himself against Dewhurst’s attacks, while Dewhurst fumbled for answers a few times, and seemed to be somewhat shocked that, as an “establishment” favorite, he had been put in the position to argue for his apparent inevitable nomination. Cruz pinned Dewhurst down on the guest worker program issue, at one point alleging the Lt. Governor had instructed state workers to remove a speech he had once given in favor of the policy from the Lt. Governor’s official website. Dewhurst never answered whether or not he ever advocated for a guest worker program, and he denied that he instructed state employees to remove his speech. However, he claimed that if you wrote the Lt. Governor’s office, you could be provided with a transcript of the speech. Amazing!

Dewhurst hammered Cruz on his legal support for the Chinese tire company, but this time Cruz himself pulled a play from Dewhurst’s own Obama play against Romney—or was it a Newt Gingrich play?—insinuating that Dewhurst had his own money personally invested in China and that this might constitute some sort of conflict of interest. Dewhurst said he didn’t know the answer because his money was in a blind trust, and Cruz said that this lack of transparency raised the question of where his money might be invested. Once again, but for different reasons—Amazing!

It seems to me that if anyone were actually watching this debate tonight—meaning if any Texas conservatives and Republicans were watching—then Cruz would be the hands down favorite. He’s smart, and he doesn’t seem too concerned to curry favor with the Texas political “establishment.” However, Dewhurst has strong support. He has aired ads featuring Mike Huckabee in support, and after this evening’s debate he got former Dallas mayor (and former Republican Senate candidate) Tom Leppert’s endorsement. He already had Rick Perry’s support.

So this race will be close—between a well-respected politician and a smart conservative upstart.

The closing bit of the debate was enlightening—the moderator asked whether either candidate would be a senator like Sen. Hutchison who he claimed brought home the bacon and looked out for Texas. Neither candidate answered entirely in the affirmative. Dewhurst said that, as senator, he would need to look toward the national interest. Cruz struck a balance between the state and the nation, but also ultimately spoke in terms of what was good for the nation.

As fiscal conservatives, they both argued that national insolvency works to the detriment of Texas. Rather than viewing the role of a senator as an agent or delegate, they were willing to speak in terms of representation that refined and enlarged, as it were, the opinions, passions and—since this was both moderators’ primary concern throughout the debate—INTERESTS of their constituents.

I guess the moderators helped to foreshadow the debate in the general election. The Democratic candidate, in order to protect the economic well being of Texans, will bring home the bacon a la Sen. Hutchison. Dewhurst or Cruz, on the other hand, will speak of the looming debt crisis and the need to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. That would be best for Texas they both say.

This debate seems to be a Texas-sized (meaning in this case, micro) version of our more national issues and concerns. As such, it should continue to attract national attention, at least if Obama really thinks he has a chance in Texas. Given what I anecdotally know, the interest will subside once the Republican nominee is decided. Nonetheless, the debate between Dewhurst, a conventional Republican, and Cruz—who I had never heard of until National Review ran a cover story  on him that at first sight I thought was about the actor Bill Murray—is of both interest and importance.

Perhaps Cruz’s undeniable intelligence and rhetorical skills could keep this race in the national spotlight, even if, should he win the runoff (as he ought to), he were running as a Republican in Texas.

Articles by John Presnall

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