DALLAS (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) – Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz faced off tonight in the first debate of the hotly contested Republican primary runoff for U.S. Senate.
The two candidates sparred for one hour before an audience of Republican voters at the studios of KERA, the Dallas public television affiliate. The Texas Tribune was a partner in the debate. KERA Managing Editor Shelley Kofler was the moderator.
Though nine Republicans were on the ballot during last month’s primary, the race has been largely focused on Dewhurst and Cruz for months. Dewhurst, who has been in office in Texas for more than a decade and has millions of dollars in personal wealth at his disposal, has long been seen as the man to beat. His supporters include Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
But Cruz has a strong following among Tea Party supporters, who think he represents the future of the GOP. And he has drawn national attention from well-known conservatives including U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Below is a liveblog of the evening’s debate, as covered by the Tribune’s Aman Batheja:
The candidates were asked about issues in which the two candidates would vote differently in the U.S. Senate.
Dewhurst said he believed Cruz is a conservative and then talked about his approach to “solving problems” before his time ran out.
Cruz attacked the question head-on.
“There will be big differences with respect to spending, with respect to taxes,” Cruz said.
The most glaring difference would be how the two would approach repealing Obamacare, Cruz said.
“Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is a good and decent man who in 15 years in office has been a conciliator…I will lead the fight to repeal every word of Obamacare.”
Both candidates were asked about the TSA policy of screening passengers in a way that many have described as groping.
“I strongly oppose the TSA’s policy of groping innocent civilians,” Cruz said. He praised Israel’s approach of “targeting terrorists” to protect its air travel and said America was “too politically correct” to follow such a policy.
He accused Dewhurst of backing down on a TSA bill that came before the Texas Senate last year.
“The truth is I’m opposed by groping by the TSA as much as anyone,” Dewhurst said.
He noted that he passed a bill banning TSA groping out of the senate in last year’s special session.
“Let’s eliminate the TSA and privatize it,” Dewhurst said.
A couple of foreign policy questions may have uneasrthed a clear policy difference between the candidates.
Ramsey asked the candidates about whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a mistake and whether they would support cutting defense spending to help balance the overall budget.
Regarding the two wars, Cruz said, “I think they made sense to go in and we stayed there for too long.” He said he would not cut defense spending to balance the budget.
Dewhurst said he thought the country went into both wars for the right reasons.
Regarding Iraq, “I think the Obama administration…so anxious to cut and run, should have left some troops there to be able to train the Iraqi forces,” Dewhurst said.
Dewhurst said funding the military was vital but that finding savings were possible. He pointed to expensive weapons system that end up getting loaded with “earmarks” by members of Congress.
“We can save money and deliver our weapons to the warriors in the field faster,” Dewhurst said.
The candidates largely agree on two questions on energy.
The first question, from a member of the audience, was about the country’s energy supply and the impact of EPA regulation.
Both candidates were quick to criticize the EPA and praise the opportunity of exploiting the natural gas underneath Texas.
“We need to be using that natural gas,” Dewhurst said. “We need to expand drilling…use it in electric generation and this will dramatically benefit the economy of Texas and reduce emissions.”
Cruz agreed but said that’s not surprising given that this debate was taking place in Texas.
“Every candidate for office in Texas says they support oil and gas,” Cruz said. “Unless you are a blithering idiot, that’s the right thing to say.”
He then cited his work fighting the EPA in federal courts.
“We need a fighter who doesn’t just talk but who has walked the walk,” Cruz said.
Each candidate just got a chance to ask each other a question.
Cruz asks Dewhurst about a payroll tax.
“So I have a very simple question: did you support a payroll tax. Yes or no and is that a good idea?”
“I’ve never supported a payroll tax and I’ve never supported a wage tax,” Dewhurst told him.
Dewhurst used his turn to give a brief summary of Cruz’s biography and contrast it with Dewhurst’s background.
“What about your background do you think makes you more qualified to be the next U.S. Senator?” Dewhurst asked.
Cruz began by saying he salutes Dewhurst’s in the military and the CIA. He then spoke about his own record fighting politically-charged cases in federal courts, most of them while Solicitor General of Texas.
“We need a fighter right now and that’s what I’ve spent a lifetime doing in defending the constitution,” Cruz said.
A question on integrity prompts both candidates to criticize each other for running attack ads.
Cruz accused Dewhurst of spending over $10 million to run false “nasty” ads about him.
Dewhurst noted that “Washington insiders” are spending millions saying “untrue things about me” on behalf of Cruz.
Cruz criticizes Dewhurst’s fiscal record as Lieutenant Governor. He says “Taxes have gone up 49 percent” under Dewhurst and state spending has gone up faster than the combined rate of population growth plus inflation.
Dewhurst appears ready for that attack.
” I love the math. I love the math. Thank you for saying that,” Dewhurst says. He notes that the Club for Growth, an ardent Cruz backer in the race, recently praised Texas’ tax structure as “exemplary and its conservative record on state spending.
“It’s a fact,” Dewhurst said. “Facts are stubborn, my friend.”
Responding to a question from Ross Ramsey, both candidates say the government should not have bailed out General Motors. Ramsey then asked about the jobs in GM’s Arlington plant that may have been lost without a bailout.
“At the end of the day, we don’t know what jobs would or wouldn’t have been lost…That sort of question always assumes that the money from the govt comes form nowhere,” Cruz said.
Dewhurst spoke about the need to bring “the Texas model” to Washingtonn, D.C.
The first question is on immigration. Peggy Fikac asks whether the candidates support a guest worker program and what they would do about the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
Cruz and Dewhurst both say they oppose a guest worker program. Neither give a direct answer on whether they would deport illegal immigrants already in the country.
The debate will be moderated by KERA Managing Editor Shelley Kofler. Most of the questions will come from a panel of journalists consisting of Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune Crystal Ayala, political reporter for Univision Texas and Peggy Fikac, Austin bureau chief for the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.
Some questions are also going to come from a small audience of Republicans voters.
Debate starting now.