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Sometimes It's Just Safer Not to Be a Superstar

High expectations can raise the risks for a candidate, especially in a rookie campaign against a wealthy incumbent. Falling short when the predictions are rosy can affect future runs for office.

The 4 leading contenders for the U.S. senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison -- Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz and former ESPN sportscaster Craig James -- gathered in Dallas for the Belo debate on Friday, April 13, 2012.

Expectations can be dangerous things.

Enter a political race as a long-shot candidate, and just finishing it might win you accolades and future opportunities.

Enter as some kind of superstar, and nothing but a great performance will do.

Consider the three Republicans slipstreaming David Dewhurst in the race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general, came into this tagged as a star of the future, with Washington columnists and Republican and conservative tenders and touters cooing over his prospects.

The high expectations for Cruz are tempered by the reality of running against a sitting lieutenant governor who hasn’t done anything obvious to offend the voters who supported him in the last four statewide elections.

Cruz doesn’t have to win the race to keep hype alive, but he can’t finish third. Losing to the favorite isn’t surprising. Losing to an also-ran could be a career ender.

Tom Leppert, the former mayor of Dallas, and Craig James, the former football player and sports announcer, entered the race without the ballyhoo. If anyone but Dewhurst wins, it will be an upset. But if either Leppert or James finishes second, it will raise some eyebrows and possibly position the runner-up for another race in 2014 or later.

Leppert has more money than anyone except Dewhurst, and James is the closest thing to a celebrity in the race because of his regular TV appearances.

Second place isn’t such a bad thing. If there’s a runoff, it will be because Dewhurst ran weaker than expected. Vulnerability isn’t a marketable trait in politics. State Reps. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock; Van Taylor, R-Plano; and Lubbock Republicans John Frullo and Charles Perry, all finished second in the first round of the 2010 primaries and then won the runoffs and took office. That’s how U.S. Reps. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, R-San Antonio, and Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, got into Congress that year, too.

Finishing third is no big deal if no more than that was expected of you. Debra Medina was a political nobody ahead of the 2010 Republican primary for governor, but she shook up that race against the party’s two most established officeholders — Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison — and made a name for herself on the way. Now she’s nosing around the 2014 race for comptroller, and experts who ignored her last time are paying attention when her name comes up.

Look at the top of this year’s Republican ballot. There’s Mitt Romney, who got drubbed in the 2008 race for the Republican presidential nomination. It positioned him for this year’s race. (This is a well-established path: you can find Republicans here and there, for instance, who believe this season’s appearance foretells a Perry campaign for president in 2016.)

Falling short of expectations can be a killer. Kent Hance started in the Legislature and then won a seat in Congress in 1978. (He beat George W. Bush, who never lost another election.) Hance lost a race for United States Senate as a Democrat in 1984 and a race for governor in 1986, as a Republican, later winning a spot on the Railroad Commission. He was still bankable. But he started the 1990 governor’s race in front and, at the end, could muster only 15 percent against Clayton Williams Jr. in the Republican primary. That ended his ballot days. He’s now the chancellor of the Texas Tech University System.

If 2012 isn’t the magic year for people on the ballot, the holes on the 2014 ticket beckon. Performing at or above expectations this time could set up the next race, convincing supporters and financiers that a candidate is a solid prospect.

Cruz, maybe the most hyped newcomer on the Texas ballot this year, is easy to pick on. If he wins, he’s a senator. Finishing a strong second could position him for attorney general or another race in 2014. A third-place finish or worse could swap the public career for a private one, this time as a well-paid corporate lawyer with some campaign stories to tell.

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