The four leading Republicans vying to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate will face off in Dallas tonight in a live televised debate.
With less than seven weeks until the Texas primary, the race remains where it has been for months, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst positioned as the presumptive front-runner and the other candidates vying to make a runoff against him.
Both former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and former NFL player and ESPN analyst Craig James say they are gunning for a second-place finish behind Dewhurst. Former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz and his campaign have said the same, but they won't foreclose on the possibility of an outright win.
So far, the campaigns have been focused less on issues than on which candidate's personal story and record best displays strict adherence to conservative principles. That emphasis on character is likely to continue in tonight’s debate, which will be hosted by Belo Corp.
“I think we all generally agree conceptually on most items,” James said. “It becomes a personality test. Who has the ability to go and stand to do the work of we the people?”
Dewhurst stresses his success in business and the conservative legislation that has passed in Texas during his time as lieutenant governor.
“You have to look at what the candidates have done versus what they say,” said Dewhurst spokesman Matt Hirsch. “Other candidates can talk about what they’ve done, but David Dewhurst is the only one with a record you can look at. He’s cut taxes, cut spending and balanced budgets.”
Cruz paints himself as a passionate fighter for conservative causes, working on high-profile cases, including defending the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, while serving as a top lawyer for the state of Texas.
"Something’s going on out there where Ted’s message is resonating," said Cruz campaign manager John Drogin. "The grassroots are fired up about sending a conservative fighter instead of a timid career politician."
Leppert, a former CEO of New York-based Turner Construction, describes himself in a recent ad and on the campaign trail as “the only businessman in the race,” ignoring Dewhurst’s background in the energy industry and lesser-known candidates like funeral home owner Glenn Addison.
Leppert says he’s the only candidate who offers detailed solutions, not empty rhetoric.
“I’ve run business for 25 years, and, with all due respect, I’ve never solved a problem with bullet points,” Leppert said.
James, the last to enter the race, describes himself as a self-made man who understands the value of hard work.
“I have lived the American dream,” James said. “When they hear that I’ve lived on real street, that I’ve taken advantage of opportunities in front of me … they know I’m doing this to do the work of we the people.”
The debate comes on the heels of a controversy that emerged Wednesday when James publicly revealed a text message that Cruz had sent him regarding the debate. During the debate, each candidate will be allowed to ask another candidate a question. In his text, Cruz suggested that James ask him about earlier political events that Dewhurst declined to attend.
James described Cruz’s text message as tantamount to trying to rig the debate. He said he opted to make it public because he didn’t trust Cruz to keep the conversation to himself. Cruz’s campaign suggested the exchange was a non-issue.
The four Republican candidates have one more televised event scheduled. On May 3, they will appear alongside Democratic contenders Sean Hubbard and Paul Sadler at a two-hour forum hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston Public Media and the University of Houston.
Both at tonight’s debate and at next month’s event, lesser-known Republican candidates like Addison and Lela Pittenger were excluded. Candidates were invited to the Belo debate based on various factors, including polling data, news coverage and ability to raise money.
Both Addison and Pittenger take issue with Belo’s criteria.
“They are not interested in a woman’s voice in this race,” Pittenger said.
Added Addison, “Clearly the establishment feels threatened by the common man.”
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