With two Republican contenders for the 2012 Senate race in Texas dropping out recently to run instead for a House seat, conventional wisdom has the GOP contest shaping up as a two-man showdown between the "establishment" candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and the tea party insurgent, former Solicitor General Ted Cruz.
But party insiders and political observers in the state say that assessment is premature.
Mr. Dewhurst officially hasn't declared for the race, and Mr. Cruz may still have serious challengers for the tea party mantle, despite the departures of Fort Worth auto dealer Roger Williams and former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, another tea party favorite.
Both men set their sights instead on the new District 33 congressional seat in the Fort Worth area, one of four new districts added in Texas as a result of the 2010 census.
Mr. Cruz, the Harvard-educated son of a Cuban-Texan, has been at the top of early fundraising totals and picked up a slew of high-profile endorsements in recent weeks, generating national buzz as a Texas version of Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio.
But a potential political rival released a privately commissioned poll earlier this month that showed Mr. Cruz garnering just 2 percent support from Republican voters in a still-crowded field of potential and announced candidates.
The poll showed state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Republican talk show host from Houston who emerged as a conservative champion in the just-finished session of the Texas Legislature, topping the field with 19 percent.
Mr. Patrick, who has also been considering a run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, insists that, if he runs, he — not Mr. Cruz or Mr. Dewhurst — would be the choice of conservatives in the state.
"This poll confirms that I would be the conservative front-runner if I announce," he said in a statement accompanying the release of the poll.
Mr. Dewhurst, acknowledged as the architect of the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature's efforts this year to close a $15 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes, hasn't declared his candidacy either. But he sent his strongest signal yet Tuesday in email to supporters promising "exciting news" July 18.
Mr. Dewhurst, a multimillionaire who could self-finance at least part of what is expected to be a $15 million to $20 million campaign, has long been considered the Republican Party favorite to replace Mrs. Hutchison. But Texas insiders say it's a mistake to underestimate Mr. Patrick.
"It's much too early to be thinking of this in terms of a two-man race," said Michael Quinn Sullivan of the Empower Texans group, a conservative Austin think-tank that grades lawmakers on fiscal responsibility.
On the group's 2011 report cards, issued Wednesday, Mr. Patrick earned an A-plus, one of only three handed out among the 32 senators. "If he gets in, he will be a legitimate candidate," Mr. Sullivan told The Washington Times.
Cruz spokesman John Drogin said Mr. Cruz, who has been racking up endorsements from the likes of Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, is focused on his campaign — not competitors.
"We know it's early and it's a wide-open race," Mr. Drogin said.
But the Cruz campaign has momentum, he said, and the right message on state's rights and fiscal responsibility.
Mr. Patrick, Mr. Dewhurst and Mr. Cruz can each claim tea party bona fides, Mr. Sullivan said, and a fierce fight for the hearts of the party's most conservative voters could open the door for the biggest-name GOP moderate in the race, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. And Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones is still in the race, though she has yet to make much noise with her campaign or her fundraising.
Whoever emerges from the GOP primary likely will face retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, 57, a Rio Grande Valley native who is seeking the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Sanchez, who commanded coalition ground forces in the early days of the Iraq war, has been a critic of Republicans since stepping down in the wake of the 2004 Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.
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