DALLAS — The next skirmish in the internal war over the direction of the Republican Party plays out in Texas next week, when primary voters choose a Senate candidate as tea party insurgent Ted Cruz is mounting an aggressive challenge to the establishment-backed candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
The latest polls suggest neither man, nor any of the other seven hopefuls seeking the Republican nomination, is likely to win an outright majority Tuesday, meaning the race will likely end up in a July 31 runoff.
Mr. Dewhurst has the backing of the state's establishment figures, including Gov. Rick Perry, while Mr. Cruz has been endorsed by former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and by a group of conservative GOP senators.
Both candidates are fighting to claim the "anti-Washington" mantle.
"My record has made me the most fiscally and socially conservative lieutenant governor in history of the state of Texas — maybe the nation," Mr. Dewhurst said during a break at a campaign event in Dallas on Monday evening.
As lieutenant governor, Mr. Dewhurst said he helped pass 51 tax and fee cuts that have saved Texans $14 billion. He cites five balanced state budgets produced during his tenure that he said were achieved without raising taxes.
But Mr. Dewhurst, 66, has seen a comfortable double-digit poll lead shrink in recent months. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, released Monday, shows Mr. Dewhurst with a 9-point advantage over Mr. Cruz, 41, a former Texas solicitor general.
Mr. Cruz, the son of a Cuban-American immigrant, has derisively called the longtime lieutenant governor an old guard "moderate" — a stinging accusation in Texas GOP politics — and is banking on getting into a one-on-one runoff with Mr. Dewhurst, a rancher and businessman with an estimated net worth of $200 million.
"At the end of the day, victory in this race is going to a runoff," said Mr. Cruz after a candidates' forum Monday in rural Stephenville. "A runoff will overwhelmingly consist of the most motivated, the most conservative Republican primary voters. We've got a double-digit lead today among informed primary voters."
Put more bluntly, Mr. Cruz said: "In a runoff, Dewhurst is in trouble."
The GOP primary scramble in Texas, created by the retirement of four-term incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, is the latest 2012 contest featuring "insurgent" Republicans challenging establishment picks.
In Indiana earlier this month, tea party favorite Richard Mourdock ousted Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Senate's senior Republican, and a week later Nebraska voters boosted a lesser-known candidate to the GOP's Senate nomination in that state over the state's attorney general.
Texas Democrats will also pick a Senate nominee Tuesday, but whoever emerges as the winner in the Republican primary will be an overwhelming favorite come November.
With those stakes, the primary fight has been vicious.
The Dewhurst campaign has run aggressive attack ads, accusing Mr. Cruz of being the lead attorney for a Chinese manufacturer charged with stealing the intellectual property of an American businessman. Mr. Cruz disputes that he is the primary counsel in the case, and Mr. Dewhurst has accused him of lying.
Media outlets say both candidate have distorted facts in their attack ads.
For his part, Mr. Dewhurst dismissed the University of Texas Internet survey of 800 Texas voters as "nonscientific" and pointed to other recent independent surveys, including one conducted in mid-April by Public Policy Polling that showed him with a 15 percentage point lead.
"I always laugh when Mr. Cruz talks about being a fighter," Mr. Dewhurst said. "The boy doesn't have the slightest ideas of what fighting is about."
Mr. Dewhurst has touted his experience as Air Force officer, a CIA agent and a former businessman, as well as a statewide political career that began in the 1990s as the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office.
"The more money and more bravado, the weaker people are," he said in an indirect jab at Mr. Cruz. "It's far less important what [candidates] say than what they've done and will do."
Running for statewide office in Texas, which includes about 20 media markets, isn't cheap, and with at least $5 million in outside money already spent on the race, the primary could be one of the most expensive in history.
Texas Conservatives Fund, a so-called super PAC, has spent more than $1.7 million in media ads opposing Mr. Cruz, says OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks money in politics.
Meanwhile, a super PAC affiliated with the anti-tax Club for Growth says it has spent almost $2 million in the past couple of weeks on efforts to oppose the Mr. Dewhurst's candidacy. The group has endorsed Mr. Cruz in the race.
Mr. Cruz has called the Texas primary "a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party."
"I think the tea party movement is the most exciting thing to happen in politics in decades," said Mr. Cruz on Monday evening. "The focus is on taking over the Republican Party."
But Mr. Dewhurst calls Mr. Cruz's characterization of the race "baloney."
"You don't have moderates in Texas. We're all conservatives," he said.
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