DALLAS — The four leading Republican candidates to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate tackled a wide range of issues including health care, immigration and government spending in their first — and likely only — live televised debate Friday night.
But first there was a text message that needed addressing.
Belo debate moderators began the program by asking former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz to explain a text message that he sent to former NFL player and ESPN analyst Craig James earlier in the week. Cruz suggested in the message that James should ask him about Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s decision to not attend many candidate forums held during the last year.
James publicly released the text, accusing Cruz of trying to “rig” the debate.
“I’m glad Craig got my text,” Cruz said when asked to explain his motivation. “There is nothing rigged at all about making a point I’ve made all over the state of Texas.”
James said he agreed with Cruz’s criticism of Dewhurst but not with the way he tried to force the issue into the debate.
“I thought it was unethical, and it put me in an awkward position,” James said.
Dewhurst dismissed the episode and the criticism over missing the forums.
“I’ve got my campaign to run. They’ve got their campaign to run,” Dewhurst said. “I’ve showed up at about half a dozen or so of these different forums. … I’m here this evening.”
Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, as he would for much of the evening, decried the exchange as proof that his fellow candidates were not up for the job of U.S. Senator.
“It’s embarrassing to kind of be talking about texts … and rigging and that sort of thing when there are really critical issues out there,” Leppert said.
Over the next 55 minutes, Cruz focused on Dewhurst. Nearly every time he spoke, Cruz criticized Dewhurst, prompting the debate moderators to give Dewhurst a chance to respond. It all left little on-camera time for Leppert and James.
Cruz and Dewhurst talked past each other on Dewhurst’s record on health care, immigration and, repeatedly, the issue of state spending.
In a few instances, Leppert and James also swiped at Dewhurst, the assumed frontrunner in the GOP primary.
“I sometimes get a little confused,” Dewhurst said. “I’m running for the United State Senate. Some of my opponents are running against David Dewhurst.”
The debate moderators sometimes had trouble getting direct answers to their questions, like whether the candidates were open to cutting Social Security or defense spending.
All four candidates answered “no” when asked whether companies with no religious affiliation should be required to provide birth control coverage for employees.
None offered the same answer as to whether a wall should be built along the Texas-Mexico border. Cruz said he supported the project. James said he didn’t. Dewhurst said a wall “in certain places” made sense. Leppert didn’t give a direct answer but said he wanted to more “accountability” for immigration enforcement.
When it came time for candidates to ask each other questions, James asked Cruz why he didn’t support the presidential campaign of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who dropped out of the race this week.
“Was it political interest and risk that you wanted to avoid?” James asked. “Why didn’t you jump out there and support a conservative?”
Cruz quipped, “I wish you’d asked the question I’d texted you.” Then, he explained that he wanted to leave the presidential race to the primary voters.
In his question to Dewhurst, Leppert accused the lieutenant governor of being beholden to special interests because of the large amount of campaign funding he has received from lobbyists. Dewhurst said he is a “lifelong conservative businessman” who does what’s right.
They didn’t get to ask questions of each other, but Dewhurst and Cruz still managed to jab at one another when they asked questions of the other candidates.
Dewhurst asked James if he would support Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn for a position in the Republican Party leadership, taking time to note that Cruz had declined to endorse the former state attorney general.
James said he would support Cornyn and anyone who would “defend the Constitution and honor the Ten Commandments.” Cruz said it would be “presumptuous” for him to commit to one senator.
Cruz’s asked Leppert about his thoughts about Dewhurst’s record on taxes and state spending growth.
“Ted, I might as well step back and let you ask David,” Leppert said. He then described Cruz as “a terrific staffer in the attorney general’s office,” who lacked the background to understand the decisions business owners face.
Near the end of the program, Cruz was asked to address allegations that he, in the past, gave a false impression of the circumstances under which his father fled Cuba. Cruz denied that he’d ever been misleading and explained that his father fought with Fidel Castro before becoming disillusioned with the revolutionary leader.
Sunday is the deadline for the candidates to report their campaign fundraising and expenses for the first quarter of the year. Late Friday, Leppert’s campaign announced it would report $4.7 million on hand and “banking nearly $1 million” in the first quarter. The latter figure includes a $500,000 contribution from Leppert.
Earlier this week, Dewhurst announced he raised $1.66 million in individual contributions in the first quarter, none of which came from his own wallet. Cruz was close behind with $1.3 million raised.
James, who has not had to file a campaign finance report since entering the race late last year, said he would release his fundraising figures Monday.
Hours before the debate, an independent Super PAC supporting Dewhurst released a new video slamming Cruz as a “false conservative.” Rob Johnson, a former Dewhurst chief of staff who now runs the Texas Conservatives Fund Super PAC, said the ad may soon air on television.
After the debate, Cruz derided the ad, saying it distorted his record and ignored the long list of conservative lawmakers, activists and groups that have endorsed him.