DALLAS (AP) — The Republicans vying to fill Texas' open U.S. Senate seat traded increasingly pointed attacks during a debate Tuesday night, as their already fiercely contested race enters its final two weeks.
But the best news of the night for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst came moments after the debate, when former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert endorsed him over ex-state Solicitor General Ted Cruz. Leppert finished third behind Dewhurst and Cruz in the Republican primary on May 29, and had refused to back either.
It was a high point for Dewhurst who had struggled at times during the debate with Cruz. He said at one point that he believed the American health care system was deficient in many areas as compared to that of countries in Europe and elsewhere, allowing tea party favorite Cruz to pounce.
Cruz boasted that the U.S. has the finest medical care system in the world — though he concurred with Dewhurst in slamming the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that largely upheld the White House-backed health care reform.
But Cruz himself then struggled through an answer when he said he would support the federal government seizing some private property in order to build a fence stretching the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border.
When pressed that such a fence could cost $7.3 billion, Cruz insisted that such a large price tag was consistent with his tea party values of limited government. Dewhurst ducked a chance to attack then, saying he too was in favor of spending billions to triple the size of the U.S Border Patrol.
Still, the lieutenant governor kept the heat on his opponent in other areas, dismissing Cruz as a simple debater who had only argued cases for the state of Texas "when his bosses told him to."
Cruz responded that Dewhurst had been too moderate for sometimes compromising with Democrats while overseeing the state Senate since 2003. Dewhurst shot back, "you won't find anyone at this table more firm or more of a fighter than me."
The debate, held at WFAA-TV studios in Dallas, featured the two candidates sitting across from one another to encourage a conversational style.
Dewhurst won the Texas primary by 10 percentage points but failed to capture a majority for the GOP nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a field that also featured Leppert and six other Republican candidates.
Dewhurst and Cruz will meet in a runoff election on July 31, and some public opinion polls have suggested Cruz may enjoy a slight lead.
The race is being watched nationally as a test of the tea party against Dewhurst, who has won the support of Gov. Rick Perry and many mainstream, conservative state lawmakers. Things have become especially heated in recent days, with both campaigns accusing each other of lying and launching character attacks.
Dewhurst owns an energy company and has a personal wealth of more than $200 million. He has lent his campaign more than $10 million. But Cruz has received millions from national grassroots groups, including the Washington-based Club For Growth.
Cruz charged that Dewhurst once supported a guest worker program for illegal immigrants and said so in a 2007 speech that has since been removed from his official government website. Dewhurst said the removal was part of routine maintenance, and that he would make all archived information available to anyone who phoned to ask for it.
"To imply that there was anything improper done ... I'm not the one who was just fined by the Senate ethics committee," Dewhurst said, referring to a recent $200 fine that the Cruz campaign paid for failing to file financial disclosure reports on time with the Federal Elections Commission.
When Dewhurst rehashed past criticisms of Cruz for his private, Houston-based law firm's representation of a Chinese firm in an intellectual property dispute, Cruz demanded to know how much of Dewhurst's personal wealth he has invested in China. Dewhurst said he was not aware of any Chinese investments, to which Cruz said his holdings were "shrouded in secrecy."
A small group of pro-tea party protesters organized by the grassroots organization FreedomWorks demonstrated outside the debate in downtown Dallas, waving homemade signs decrying Dewhurst. Hours earlier, tea party superstar and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint distributed an email asking for donations to the Cruz campaign. His email read: "Fellow conservatives: The fight of our lives is taking place right now in the State of Texas."
Dewhurst, meanwhile, spent Tuesday morning meeting with a group of Dallas business leaders, and unveiled a plan to grow the nation's economy, which included stopping overregulation on small business and giving Americans "The Right to Work."