SALADO, Texas (AP) — It was the third debate in 24 hours for four Republicans running for lieutenant governor. They'd slung face-to-face attacks across 150 miles since the previous night, but now heavy construction nearby was snarling traffic and threatening to cancel the event.
But this is a show that always — and constantly — goes on.
With still a month before the March primary, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his three challengers have already all or mostly appeared together at a whopping 26 debates or forums, a pace that their weary campaigns and observers say is unprecedented in recent Texas elections.
More are in the pipeline for what's the most competitive statewide primary since Ted Cruz won his U.S. Senate seat in 2012, when he barnstormed similar forums across Texas and made Dewhurst's absences a liability.
By the end of this race, the GOP lieutenant governor field could headline more events than even Willie Nelson has booked for this year.
"Some of them are getting road weary," said John Coleman, vice president of the Central Texas Tea Party that hosted the most recent forum this week. "But we constantly call and email them. We don't let them out from under anything. We're like a flea on a dog's back — we're not going away."
Building name recognition isn't driving the endless driving from one tea party hall to the next county Republican club. Dewhurst, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, state Sen. Dan Patrick and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples are already among the biggest and most powerful figures in the Texas GOP. Combined, they have 58 years of elected experience in Austin.
Name an issue dear to conservative voters — bans on gay marriage, more gun rights, tighter abortion restrictions — and one of the foursome can credibly claim an instrumental role in getting those Texas laws on the books. None, however, carry the magnetism of Cruz, whose mere name elicits raucous applause when any of the candidates mentions the gold-standard for tea party voters.
But the price of aligning with Cruz is, in many ways, this grueling run of debates.
Besides major conservative groups bankrolling his 2012 campaign, Cruz slowly paved his upset victory over then-heavily favored Dewhurst with a relentless run of forums with grassroots activists across Texas. He mocked his opponent as "Ducking Dewhurst" and criticized his absence at dozens of voter events.
Dewhurst, who says he wants a fourth and final term as the influential Senate leader, has been a more regular presence this time around.
"They want to replicate the Cruz model in their own way. And Dewhurst wants to perform and change the narrative of the last race," Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said.
Gov. Rick Perry refused debates during his last re-election run in 2010, then torpedoed his White House hopes a year later by stumbling in a presidential debate and muttering the now-famous "oops" after forgetting the name of a federal department he would close. This lieutenant governor field has so far avoided any campaign-sinking gaffes, though Staples has begun criticizing Dewhurst for saying teachers make "a very fair salary" at one Houston stop.
The debates are also revealing differences — however slightly — among the otherwise ideologically indistinguishable candidates. Patterson, for instance, stood out this week in Dallas by becoming the only candidate to say he'd consider legalizing medical marijuana.
"The problem is the debates are really kind of beauty contests. They're forums. You can't really interact," said Patterson, whose voice has sputtered from the toll of so many debates. "It's difficult to have a repartee between the candidates when you only have one minute."
Patrick said the events are paying off despite the grind.
"The travel can be exhausting at times, but we have five weeks to go and I'm as full of energy as day one," he said. "And it leads to consistency."
The winner faces presumptive Democratic nominee Leticia Van de Putte, who's barely even begun campaigning. She may not even be the first Democrat to debate one of the Republican candidates: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro agreed to debate Patrick on immigration after calling him out as the most extreme on the issue.
Border security is the most important issue to voter Doug Smith, a construction coordinator from Moody, who was among the crowd of about 100 at the Salado debate. He said he was impressed with all the candidates there — which didn't include Patterson, who skipped this one.
Would Smith hold that against him?
"Not necessarily, though I didn't get to hear from him," Smith said.
He'll get another chance. Another debate is scheduled this week.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber