The Big Conversation

With it becoming increasingly likely that Donald Trump will skip today’s Fox News-presented GOP presidential debate in Des Moines, Ted Cruz and a pair of super PACs supporting him spent Wednesday trying to get Trump to agree to a “mano a mano” encounter between the two men on Saturday.

The Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported that Cruz at a rally Wednesday set the time and venue for the possible showdown: 8 p.m. Saturday at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City. 

To sweeten the pot, a pair of Cruz supporting super PACs “pledged $1.5 million to veterans' charities if Trump accepts the challenge,” Svitek wrote. “The super PACs … said their offer is contingent on four stipulations: The debate must be an hour long; it must take place on or before Sunday; it must be exclusively between Trump and Cruz; and the candidates would be free to choose a moderator.”

The Trump campaign announced Wednesday afternoon that it plans to counterprogram against the Thursday debate by holding a “special event” in Des Moines to benefit veterans groups.

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The push by Cruz and friends comes as some speculate that Trump’s decision to skip the debate was in part motivated as an attempt to take from Cruz an opportunity for a dynamic shifting moment just before Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

Trump, meanwhile, was involved in a contentious interview on Fox News on Wednesday in which host Bill O’Reilly asked Trump to be “the bigger man” and appear in the debate.

Trump was not dissuaded and instead criticized O’Reilly for asking about the debate, a topic that he said the two had agreed beforehand would not be touched.

Trib Must Reads

With Eminent Domain Attack on Trump, Ted Cruz Walks Fine Line, by Jim Malewitz — Despite a recent ad bashing Donald Trump for employing eminent domain for a parking lot, Ted Cruz has backed the Keystone XL and other pipeline projects that would use the same controversial tool to displace landowners.

Jared Woodfill Starts Small in Bid to 'Take Back' Texas GOP, by Jordan Rudner — Standing before a stained-glass triptych depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, Jared Woodfill, who is running for chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, spoke at length about his disappointment with his fellow conservatives.

GOP Brags, Democrats Wince as HD 118 Goes Red, by Madlin Mekelburg — A day after a Republican unexpectedly snatched away a long-held Democratic statehouse seat in San Antonio, state GOP leaders were crowing while Democrats swore the low-turnout special election was a non-repeatable fluke.

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Man Who Killed Texas Game Warden Executed, by Jolie McCullough — James Garrett Freeman shot and killed Justin Hurst, a game warden, following a high-speed chase in 2007. He was executed Wednesday evening, the second execution in Texas this year.

TxDOT Planning $1.3 Billion to Reduce Traffic in Largest Cities, by Madlin Mekelburg — The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to approve a $1.3 billion plan Thursday aimed to funding 14 roadway projects designed to relieve gridlock in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

Ted Cruz's Trump Battles Evoke Memories of a Former Opponent, by Patrick Svitek — Ted Cruz's challenge to debate Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump one on one is evoking memories of Cruz's 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, when he applied similar pressure to then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Lawmakers Compare Driver Surcharge Program to Debtors' Prison, by Jamie Lovegrove — State senators expressed bipartisan disapproval Wednesday of an unpopular program that levies large surcharges on drivers for traffic offenses, with several calling for broad changes or scrapping it entirely.

Criminal Appeals Court Clears Way for New Trial in Toddler's 1998 Death, by Terri Langford — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday stuck to an earlier decision granting relief to a Montgomery County man convicted of murder.

The Day Ahead

•    State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer is hosting a veterans town hall with House colleague César Blanco, D-El Paso, that will launch his effort to protect the Hazlewood Act. The town hall will begin at 10 a.m. at VFW Post 8936 in San Antonio.

•    The Texas Tribune is hosting the final conversation in its three-part series on where the state is headed on health care at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The talk begins at 12 p.m. and will be live streamed for those unable to attend in person.


The George P. Bush Q&A, Texas Monthly

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Report says Texas school standards are worst in nation, The Dallas Morning News

Top Cruz super PAC donors up pressure on Trump to debate, The Washington Post

'Resign-to-run' rule now applies to city elected officials, Houston Chronicle

Lawyers Assail ‘Runaway Grand Jury’ in Indictments of Abortion Opponents, The New York Times

Wharton County man executed in killing of game warden, Houston Chronicle

Will Ted Cruz miss his best chance for knockout punch against Trump?, Austin American-Statesman

An Exclusive Interview With Tooraj Faridi, a Houstonian Pardoned By Obama, Texas Monthly

3,200 Texans who failed GED could now pass, Austin American-Statesman

Heidi Cruz pushes back against Trump, Politico

Quote to Note

 “If Donald is afraid of Megyn Kelly, I would like to invite him on your show to participate in a one-on-one debate between me and Donald, mano a mano.”

— Appearing on “The Mark Levin Show,” Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz invited rival Donald Trump to a two-man debate after the billionaire’s refusal to appear at tonight’s GOP debate.

News From Home

•    If you've received a campaign mailer, let us know about it. You can loop us in by sending an electronic version to this email address. Help us collect campaign communications ahead of the vital March 1 primary elections.

Trib Events for the Calendar

•    The Texas Tribune's second Texas-centric Trivia Night on Jan. 31 at The Highball in Austin

•    A Conversation with Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer on Feb. 4 at the Austin Club

•    A Conversation with Sen. José Menéndez on Feb. 11 at the Austin Club

•    The Ticket: A Live Recording and Democratic Primary Debate Watch Party on Feb. 11 at KUT Public Media Studios in Austin

•    A Conversation with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and Rep. Jose Manuel Lozano on Feb. 25 at Texas A&M University-Kingsville

•    A Conversation with Sen. Carlos Uresti and Rep. Poncho Nevárez on March 23 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine

•    Symposium on Transportation on March 29 at Texas A&M University in College Station