One by one, several candidates hoping to be Texas' next GOP Senate nominee made their pitches to the Republican Party's forum in Erath County, just west of Fort Worth — but the few dozen voters packed inside the small meeting hall on a hot afternoon last week were getting antsy.
Then, 40 minutes late, Ted Cruz strolled in, grabbed the microphone and began to speak. This was what the rural central Texas crowd had come to see.
In a defiant yet amiable tone, Mr. Cruz, the charismatic former Texas solicitor general and son of a Cuban immigrant, fired up the crowd with calls to oust the "radical" Obama administration, eliciting sympathetic head bobs and a chorus of "uh-huhs."
But Mr. Cruz, 41, has more than the president in his sights. For him, the battle for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is the next test of whether tea party power, which exploded onto the political scene in 2010, can drive the political conversation again in 2012.
"This race has been called ground zero between the moderate establishment and the tea party tidal wave that swept the country" two years ago, Mr. Cruz said later that day in Dallas. "The stakes could not be higher."
While nine Republicans are on the ballot for Tuesday's primary for Texas' open Senate seat, the race essentially is between two men; Mr. Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, 66, who has the backing of the state's GOP establishment, including Gov. Rick Perry.
Texas Democrats will also pick a Senate nominee Tuesday, but whoever emerges as the winner in the GOP race will be an overwhelming favorite come November.
Mr. Dewhurst has seen a comfortable double-digit poll lead shrink in recent months. Results of a University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey released last week showed the lieutenant governor, a rancher and businessman with an estimated net worth of $200 million, with a 9 point advantage over Mr. Cruz.
Polling suggests neither man, nor any of the seven other hopefuls seeking the Republican nod, is likely to win an outright majority Tuesday, meaning the primary will extend to a July 31 runoff between the top two finishers.
For many Texas voters, the race is as much about denying the establishment its pick as it is about backing Mr. Cruz.
"I want Dewhurst defeated, and I think [Mr. Cruz] is the best choice for that," said Gloriana Tadlock of Stephenville, Texas, moments after Monday's candidate forum, which the lieutenant governor skipped. "Sometimes you vote in a direction so that you rally" the electorate.
A Texas Rubio?
Mr. Cruz has been likened to another tea party favorite, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents, like Mr. Cruz's father, fled Cuba in the 1950s. The Florida Republican also challenged an establishment Republican, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, during his successful 2010 Senate bid.
Mr. Cruz says he is flattered by the comparison, but insists he's more than just "Rubio 2.0," though he acknowledges that, as with Mr. Rubio, his ideology was molded in part by the struggles and life experiences of his Cuban-born father.
He says he finds inspiration in Mr. Rubio's 2010 victory, calling the Florida race the most important election in the country that year because it highlighted the rise of young Reaganite conservatives on Capitol Hill — including freshmen Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
And as with Ronald Reagan, Mr. Cruz says he would be willing to strike deals with Democrats as long as they at least partially advance conservative values — a stance that may put him at odds with some hard-line tea party activists, who consider bipartisan compromise out of the question.
"My idea of compromise is the same as Ronald Reagan's was. What Reagan said was, what do you do if they offer you half a loaf? Answer: You take it, and then you come back for more," he said.
An unwillingness to compromise has made the tea party a pariah to many in Washington, particularly Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who blames the insurgent movement for poisoning the legislative machinery on Capitol Hill. Just last week, he said the "strict adherence to tea party ideology among Republicans" was the chief hurdle to getting a long-term debt deal done this year.
But for many Texas Republican voters, the tea party fight is worth the effort. And Mr. Cruz says he is proud to be part of "the most exciting thing to happen to politics in decades."
The tea party wave in 2010 helped Republicans take control of the House and slash the Democrats' numerical advantage in the Senate. But Mr. Cruz says the movement is even better organized now and poised for greater success this year, in primaries and general elections. Moral victories are not acceptable.
"The focus is on winning elections, the focus is on throwing out moderate career politicians who are not standing for free-market principles and the Constitution," he said. "The focus is on taking over the Republican Party."
While some tea party activists have pushed for the movement to split from the GOP and create a formal third party, Mr. Cruz says such a move isn't necessary, at least not yet.
"The Republican Party is the natural home for the tea party if — and this is a big if — Republicans stand for liberty," Mr. Cruz said. "If Republicans are just for big-government status, who spend almost as bad as Democrats, then I think the American people will say the heck with all of them."
Mr. Dewhurst, meanwhile, has touted his experience in the Air Force, the CIA and in business, as well as a statewide political career that began in 1999 as the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office.
But he's also fighting to claim the "anti-Washington" mantle, saying that he is the most fiscally and socially conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas, and maybe the nation.
"I always laugh when Mr. Cruz talks about being a fighter. The boy doesn't have the slightest idea what fighting's about," Mr. Dewhurst said during a break at a campaign event in Dallas last week.
"It's far less important what [candidates] say than what they've done and will do."
The contest, which has attracted more than $6 million from outside groups, according to OpenSecrets.org, is poised to be one of the most expense primaries in history.
Mr. Cruz is banking on getting into a one-on-one runoff with Mr. Dewhurst, a contest the Cruz campaign says it would win because runoffs typically attract the most motivated voters, a demographic it says it has captured.
Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report, thinks a runoff is highly likely. But she said it's too early to tell who would have the advantage in a runoff. Much depends on whom the losing seven candidates would support. And with the intraparty battle extended for more than two months, more outside money may flood into — and influence — the race.
Added Ms. Duffy; "Don't underestimate Dewhurst's ability to get voters out."
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