FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Tea-party darling Ted Cruz told thousands of cheering delegates at the Texas Republican Convention on Saturday that he was a fighter and the fierce battle for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination will be watched across America to gage just how powerful grass-roots conservative groups really are.
His opponent, establishment Republican favorite and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, then took the same stage and assured a more-subdued crowd that he too was a fighter.
The contest for which Senate hopeful can out-conservative the other continued to expose deep divisions in the state’s otherwise powerful GOP juggernaut as the three-day convention at the Fort Worth Convention Center closed.
Tea-party supporters and ardent anti-government groups have lined up behind Cruz, the fiery, Cuban-American former state solicitor general. Mainstream Republicans are backing Dewhurst, who has helped move Texas to the right while holding the powerful lieutenant governorship for nearly nine years.
The pair are headed to a July 31 runoff to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson after neither got a majority of votes cast among a crowded GOP senatorial field in last month’s primary.
Gov. Rick Perry was booed on the convention’s opening day for endorsing Dewhurst. The boo-birds stayed mostly quiet Saturday, only hissing when Dewhurst decried “Washington special interests” who he said have tried to manipulate the race — a reference to national groups such as the Washington-based Club For Growth that are backing Cruz.
The floor of the convention had the electricity of a basketball game when Cruz emerged with “Eye of the Tiger” blaring. The crowd roared and many climbed to their feet and waved Cruz signs left beforehand on every seat.
“Do the grass roots matter? This race is a test to that proposition,” Cruz said. He called Dewhurst “a good and decent man” who “is owed great respect for his many years of public service.”
But he also called the runoff a “dogfight,” and added, “our nation is in crisis and we need a fighter.”
Following him, Dewhurst also received sustained applause and a partial standing ovation, though few people held up signs. He said, “Washington is a disaster,” promised to make the federal government more like Texas and added, “I won’t ever give up fighting.”
“To me, being conservative isn’t a theory, it’s my life,” Dewhurst said.
The intraparty Senate fight has largely overshadowed what was supposed to be a united convention front against President Barack Obama — a chord keynote speaker and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin struck before the Dewhurst and Cruz speeches.
“We’re coming to a point where we will have taken our safety net … and turned it into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency,” Ryan said.
Ryan is author of a plan to gradually transform Medicare into a voucher system in which future seniors would get a fixed amount to buy medical insurance.
“President Obama cannot run on his record. It’s a terrible record,” Ryan said. When he talked about federal debt levels pushing the U.S. economy toward a cliff, a woman shrieked, “throw Obama over a cliff!”
The state party approved a 2012 platform that is ardently anti-Obama but also dramatically softens its stance on illegal immigration.
It concedes that mass deportation of illegal immigrants isn’t practical and instead seeks “common ground to develop and advance a conservative, market- and law-based approach to our nation’s immigration issues.”
The platform still demands securing the U.S.-Mexico border immediately and calls on federal officials to limit birthright U.S. citizenship to children of American citizens, rather than babies simply born on U.S. soil. But it drops language from previous Texas GOP platforms urging local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
The new platform even sanctions a national temporary worker program to bring skilled and unskilled foreigners to America “when no U.S. workers are currently available.”
Often heated debate on immigration stretched on for hours, with those opposed arguing that it was “ambiguous at best, liberal at worst” and seeking to replace more-lenient provisions with hard-line immigration language approved in past party platforms.
The proposed changes were defeated over and over again, however, with supporters arguing that the new platform language allows Texas to lead the nation on immigration solutions, rather than simply listing problems generated by it.
“It’s time for Texas to show this nation how to fix this,” said Art Martinez, a delegate who was on the committee that drafted the immigration language.
Others noted that softening the party’s stance on immigration would make the GOP more attractive to Hispanic voters who constitute a powerful voting bloc statewide.
Many other parts of the platform are more traditional, including opposing homosexuality and barring illegal immigrants’ children from attending public school.
Another provision makes it harder for the speaker of the Texas House to form a coalition of Democrats and Republican lawmakers to win the position, seeking to ensure whoever becomes speaker is less moderate.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)