FORT WORTH — Two days ago GOP activists booed when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s name was mentioned. On Saturday, they booed him in person.
It happened when Dewhurst, who is locked in an increasingly bitter struggle with Ted Cruz in the GOP race for the U.S. Senate, was attempting to describe his opponent — in unflattering terms — during a brief speech to delegates Saturday afternoon.
“This runoff is a clear election between a lifelong conservative businessman, a conservative leader, a Washington outsider,” Dewhurst said, “and a lawyer who is funded principally by Washington special interests.” It was a clear reference to the expenditures made on Cruz’s behalf by the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has backed insurgent candidates in other states.
Delegates roared their disapproval with boos and catcalls when Dewhurst criticized his Tea Party-backed rival. One man could be heard screaming, “Tell the truth!” Boos rained down again when Dewhurst warned that “Washington special insiders” were about to unleash millions of dollars in negative ads “attacking Texas” — though it’s clear the target will be Dewhurst himself.
The episode underscored the dangers for the Texas Republican establishment at a time when the party’s base is restless and eager to confront that establishment in pursuit of conservative reforms on spending, taxes and social issues.
Gov. Rick Perry elicited boos when he mentioned Dewhurst’s name at the start of the convention Thursday. And House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, faced scattered boos and cries of “oust Straus” on Friday during a three-minute address on the convention floor.
Dewhurst got a more polite reception Friday, but that was during a time slot reserved for current elected officials. On Saturday, top candidates running for office were given time to speak, and the contrast between Cruz and Dewhurst could hardly have been more stark.
Cruz went first. As he took the stage, “Eye of the Tiger,” the classic underdog anthem from the movie Rocky, blared over the loudspeakers. The crowd erupted in a sign-waving, fist-pumping roar.
Cruz told the delegates he was in a “dog fight” with Dewhurst and asked for their help in defeating the GOP establishment’s favored candidate in the July 31 runoff.
“We are in this runoff because of you,” Cruz said. “The Austin political establishment said this was impossible. And the conservative grassroots across Texas ... stood up and proved them wrong.”
Cruz ticked off the list of court cases he took to the U.S. Supreme Court as Texas solicitor general and touted the endorsements he has received from national conservative leaders like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. He said Texas would be the next state — like Indiana and Nebraska —where a Tea Party-backed insurgent comes from behind to win.
Cruz called Dewhurst a “decent man,” but he said he would be the kind of “fighter” voters want. He also took a jab at his opponent’s negative advertising campaign against him.
“We faced in this race over $10 million in nasty false attack ads trying to convince every Texan that I’m a red Chinese communist who wants to eat your children,” Cruz said. He got a standing ovation when he concluded.
When it was Dewhurst’s time to speak, the audience was polite but far more subdued than the one that greeted Cruz. Dewhurst touted the “Texas economic miracle” that he said he helped bring about alongside the Texas governor.
Dewhurst repeatedly used the word “fight” and “fighter” in his speech, an acknowledgement that Cruz’s feisty image and his emergence as a crusading Tea Party conservative have put the long-serving lieutenant governor on the defensive with grassroots activists.
Dewhurst, whose wealth has been estimated at $200 million or more, described a challenging upbringing in Houston after his father was killed by a drunken driver when he was just three. He developed a stutter but overcame it, and then went on to join the Air Force and then the Central Intelligence Agency, before starting his own successful business.
“I got beat up, but I never gave up and we finally succeeded,” Dewhurst said. “And I won’t ever give up fighting for each and every one of you.”
Dewhurst and Cruz spoke as the party was wrapping up its three-day convention. While divisions in the party were on display, delegates adopted a nonbinding GOP platform that calls for a national guest-worker program, seen as a welcoming gesture to the growing Hispanic population.
And unlike last year, when delegates overthrew their party leader, the Republicans easily re-elected Chairman Steve Munisteri to another two-year term.
Texas Democrats were also wrapping up their convention Saturday.
Texas Tribune reporter Morgan Smith contributed to this story.