HOUSTON — It was the day party leaders had dreamed of — and they got it.
For one day, the political universe centered on Texas — specifically Houston, the state's largest city and home to a leading candidate looking to protect his home-field advantage. With six days until the Texas primary, most of the GOP field converged here on the eve of the 10th Republican debate, a lineup that included retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Fresh off the campaign trail in Nevada, which held its caucuses Tuesday night, the candidates adjusted accordingly.
"I was just getting a tutorial backstage about H-Town," Rubio said shortly after taking the stage here at a rally. "You guys know what that means?"
Many of the campaigns saw a convenient reason to visit ahead of the debate, which is being held Thursday at the University of Houston. Yet they also acknowledged an additional incentive: being able to build some support in a state that will award its 155 delegates — the biggest batch yet — on a proportional basis.
"You can get nowhere near first place in Texas and still vacuum up a whole lot of delegates just because of the size of the state," Rubio adviser Todd Harris told reporters on the sidelines of Rubio's rally here. "We’re under no illusions that there won’t be a pretty resounding Ted Cruz victory, but there are things that we think we can do on the margins to sweep up some delegates, and we’re going to do it."
A flood of new polls accompanied the day, though they offered little consensus about how strong Cruz's advantage is at home. One of the surveys, done by WFAA, found Cruz tied with Trump for first at 32 percent, while three others gave Cruz leads over Trump ranging from 1 point to 15 points.
Events throughout the day featured a parade of familiar Cruz supporters, but none was more vocal than Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in emphasizing the need for a decisive victory in his home state. Closing out a Harris County GOP dinner Wednesday night, Patrick, who co-chairs Cruz's campaign in Texas, said Cruz not only has to win Texas but also win it by a "large margin."
"We have to pick up every delegate we can in Texas," said Patrick, urging Cruz supporters against complacency. "Don't let anybody tell you, 'Well, Ted's going to win Texas and he doesn't need my vote.' He needs your vote."
Absent from the mix of candidates Wednesday in Houston was Trump, the national frontrunner, who is expected in the state Thursday for the debate and then Friday for a rally in Fort Worth. Trump still made his presence known with a pair of tweets seeking to undercut Cruz's home-field advantage.
"Why would Texans vote for 'liar' Ted Cruz when he was born in Canada, lived there for 4 years-and remained a Canadian citizen until recently," Trump wrote. "When Ted Cruz quits the race and the field begins to clear, I will get most of his votes - no problem!"
The action-packed day began inside a Mach Industrial Group warehouse, where Cruz formally received the endorsement of Gov. Greg Abbott, his protege in the attorney general's office. Both Abbott and Cruz talked up their home state's expanded influence in the nominating process, with Abbott asking supporters to make the most of the "Texas-sized role" by casting a ballot for Cruz.
"You know, the past elections the Texas primary has been late in the process, long after the decision was made, but now, six days from now is Super Tuesday," said Cruz, who has put a focus on building support in the group of mostly southern contests set to vote Tuesday. "Super Tuesday, I believe, will be the single most important day in this presidential election. I believe we are poised to have a very good night."
While none of Cruz's rivals beside Trump are aiming to play the role of spoiler in Texas, they see some opportunity in the way the state doles out delegates — proportionally, unless a candidate wins half or more of the vote either statewide or in a certain congressional district. Hoping to take advantage of the twist, Rubio's campaign brought him Wednesday afternoon to an airport near Hobby airport, where the Florida senator drew some battle lines with Trump on the eve of the debate.
"We have a frontrunner in this race, Donald Trump, who says he's not going to take sides on Israel versus the Palestinians," Rubio said in a relatively new critique of the billionaire. "He wants to be an honest broker. Well, there is no such thing as an honest broker in that."
"When I'm president, we're going to take sides," Rubio said. "We're going to be on Israel's side."
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson also made an appearance Wednesday in Houston, speaking after Cruz at the Harris County Republican Party's Lincoln-Reagan Dinner. Carson took the opportunity to fire back at critics of his comment Tuesday that President Barack Obama was "raised white," saying the outcry over the comment would be comical if it was not so tragic.
Cruz and Carson were the only candidates to RSVP for the dinner, and Cruz made a point of lavishing praise on Carson, whose weeks-long allegations of "dirty tricks" have fueled a perception that Cruz is running a dishonest campaign. "Ben's entire life has inspired millions of people around this country," Cruz said.
The main tension in the Texas primary, however, continues to be between Cruz and Trump, both vying for the affection of a Texas electorate whose usual anger with Washington, D.C., runs even hotter this election cycle. Among Texas Republicans, there is a sense that Cruz will prevail but that Trump is a credible threat, especially as he gains steam following resounding victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Trump's strength and what it could mean on Tuesday came up repeatedly as Cruz spoke with reporters after receiving Abbott's endorsement. Asked if Trump's three straight wins has given him unstoppable momentum — potentially leading to an upset in the Lone Star State — Cruz said he had confidence in Texas voters to make the right choice. "Texans have a very good ability to see through baloney," Cruz said.
As Rubio's rally let out, Trump supporter Roland Arredondo expressed confidence the billionaire would "win pretty decisively" on Cruz's home turf. Arredondo, a restaurant employee from Katy whose mom brought him to the Rubio rally out of curiosity, said he liked what he heard from the Rubio but was not budging. He had already cast an early ballot for Trump, anyway.
"He has the momentum on his side after winning Nevada last night," Arredondo said. "He has the wind on his back now going into Super Tuesday, and he's even leading in Texas," the Trump supporter added, referring to at least one poll last year that had the billionaire with an edge over Texas' sitting senator.
On the eve of the debate, the GOP candidates got one last chance to make their cases to a national audience thanks to a town hall hosted by Fox News at the Queensbury Theatre in Houston. Carson and Cruz appeared at the event in person, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Rubio showed up via satellite. Trump did not participate, an absence noted by one questioner who said she guessed "Mr. Trump loves everybody but Texas."
The Texas-based action was expected to continue after the debate Thursday, with Carson, Rubio and Trump all scheduled to appear Friday or Saturday in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Cruz's wife Heidi is making 10 stops across the state on his behalf Friday through Sunday. As the Harris County GOP dinner was winding down, Cruz's campaign released a schedule that suggests he is not leaving anything up to chance in his home state: He plans to spend Monday and Tuesday in the vicinities of Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.
Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.