HOUSTON -- David Dewhurst walked into a televised debate as the man to beat in the Texas Republican race for the U.S. Senate. And he took a beating.
The presumed frontrunner became the preferred piñata for his opponents, who repeatedly swiveled their debate answers into attacks on the lieutenant governor. The barrage started with the first answer to the first question and continued all the way into the candidates’ closing remarks.
“I sometimes get a little confused,” Dewhurst said. “I’m running for United States Senate. Some of my opponents are running against David Dewhurst.”
Of course, all three of his opponents on stage for The Belo Debate—Ted Cruz, the state’s former solicitor general; Tom Leppert, the former mayor of Dallas; and Craig James, the SMU football hero turned sports commentator—are running against Dewhurst, hoping to at least jockey into a second place finish for a likely runoff.
The feisty debate carried live on television stations across the state featured questions from a panel of reporters, including KHOU 11 News anchor Greg Hurst. The broadcast came less than seven weeks before the May 29 primaries. The live telecast was unusual, partly because of the participation of Dewhurst, who’s been criticized for skipping dozens of other join appearances by other candidates.
“For the entire course of this campaign, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has chosen to skip 32 candidate forums all over the state,” said Cruz, speaking about a controversial text message in which he suggested James ask him a question that he could spin into an attack on Dewhurst.
Cruz was Dewhurst’s most strident critic in the debate, pivoting almost every question into a criticism of the lieutenant governor. But Leppert also knocked the well-financed lieutenant governor for accepting campaign money from lobbyists.
“You’ve raised over $800,000 from lobbyists,” Leppert said. “In fact, this election cycle you raised more from Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid. How in the world, given that, can you say you’re going to be a game changer in Washington?”
The candidates answered questions on everything from the contraception controversy to federal spending. They mostly agreed with each other’s positions, with a few noteworthy exceptions. For example, they split on the issue of building a wall along the Texas-Mexico border: Cruz flatly favors it, James and Leppert flatly oppose it and Dewhurst believes in walls and fences “in certain places.”
Cruz was pinned down by a reporter’s questioning about part of his campaign backstory, admitting that his Cuban immigrant father—who he’s bragged about fleeing oppression—actually fought for Fidel Castro.
“He fled oppression,” Cruz said. “Now, when he got here, initially he spoke raising money for Castro, but when Castro declared he was a communist, he then went around speaking and denouncing Castro.”
Dewhurst’s response to the hour-long assault was comparatively subdued. However, he criticized Cruz for a remark that’s resonated among many Republican primary voters, pointing out that Cruz won’t pledge to support Sen. John Cornyn in a bid for Senate Majority Whip.
The dynamic of this race has been thrown into turmoil by the late date of the delayed Texas primaries. A dizzyingly complicated series of court challenges over the state’s redrawn legislative lines tossed the political calendar into chaos, pushing the March primary into May and the inevitable runoffs into July. That means voters will head to the polls at times when many Texans traditionally take vacations, which will probably diminish turnout. And political analysts figure lower voter turnout will probably help more conservative candidates and hurt moderates like Dewhurst.
One more televised debate is scheduled before the May 29 primary.