Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is the mainstream GOP choice to win the party's nomination to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, but he is locked in a white-hot battle with tea party favorite and former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz. Outside of Texas, the race is seen as a key test of grassroots groups' ability to sway a pivotal election.
Cruz hit Dewhurst on his first answer, seizing on the lieutenant governor's past suggestion that some aspects of the American health care system are inferior to those in Europe. He recycled a second past attack moments later, when he said Dewhurst supported a broad guest worker program for illegal immigrants in a 2007 speech -- but has since reversed himself and instructed state employees to remove the speech from his official website. That charge prompted someone in the audience to proclaim "liar!"
The pair squared off in front of a crowd of more than 300 people in a warehouse-style meeting hall in Houston that serves as the headquarters of the King Street Patriots, a tea party group. Quotes from America's founding fathers, including George Washington and Ben Franklin, lined the gray, cinderblock walls.
Both campaigns plastered the surrounding lawn with campaign signs, but the hall was decidedly pro-Cruz. He drew sustained applause and many in the crowd climbed to their feet as he took the stage. The applause for Dewhurst was merely polite.
Televised in major markets around the state, the debate gave each candidate 90 seconds to answer questions largely submitted by the audience, ordinary voters or from viewers via Internet -- and it didn't allow for rebuttals. That rule ensured things stayed relatively calm in the early going and Dewhurst didn't respond to the attacks, except to say "they're a lot of people that talk. I'm not a great talker."
The lieutenant governor grew up with a stammer and has a halting public speaking style, while Cruz is a former college debating champion.
Dewhurst made a point of trumpeting his conservative credentials, saying at one point that he was a great supporter of capitalism and that he was "capitalistic."
Things got more tense, however, when Cruz said his father, a pastor who lives outside Dallas, received a Dewhurst flier with his likeness pasted in front of a Chinese flag -- a reference to Dewhurst's past criticisms of Cruz's Houston-based law firm for representing a Chinese company in an intellectual property dispute with an American manufacturer.
"I have to say Mr. Lieutenant Governor, you're better than this. This is not what politics is supposed to be about," Cruz said of the flier. "This is why people are sick of the fighting."
Dewhurst responded: "I have total respect for you, your patriotism. There's no question you are a strong patriot."
"Then why does your mailer say different?" Cruz shot back.
The race has turned increasingly fierce -- and expensive -- in recent weeks, with both sides accusing the other of telling lies in radio and television ads. On Monday, the Club For Growth Action announced it was increasing its media buy by $574,000 on behalf of Cruz, who is backed by national tea party groups. That means the political action committee representing the Washington-based group has spent $2.5 million in the runoff.
But Gov. Rick Perry and many top state Republican lawmakers have campaigned for Dewhurst, who runs an energy company, has a personal wealth worth more than $200 million and has lent his campaign more than $10 million.
When a question from an everyday voter during the debate asked why both candidates are indeed fighting so much, Dewhurst said his opponent is the one responsible for so much mudslinging. That prompted another outburst, from a woman seated near the stage who shrieked, "That's not true!" but she was quickly shushed.
Cruz again interrupted Dewhurst when he mistakenly suggested he'd been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
"The NRA did not endorse you in this race," Cruz cut in. Dewhurst responded: "You're absolutely right. It's the local, the local people."
Both candidates were also critical of their own party. Cruz said some Republicans may waffle in their opposition to the White House-backed health care reform and may eventually fight to keep certain popular positions of the law.
He also said that many in the GOP make empty promises about being conservative. "If you had 50 Republican candidates up here," he said, "all 50 would say yes they're conservative."
Dewhurst at one point said he blamed the Republicans nearly as much as Democrats in Congress for allowing runaway spending by the federal government.