Top GOP Senate Candidates Debate | KERA News

Top GOP Senate Candidates Debate

The four leading Texas Republicans hoping to be the party's U.S. Senate nominee faced off in their first televised debate Friday, and most of the attacks focused on perceived front-runner Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and who is the most conservative candidate.

Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz repeatedly tried to paint Dewhurst as a moderate, citing the growth in state spending since he took office in 2003.

Dewhurst countered that when population growth and inflation are considered, per capita spending has gone down.

Dewhurst: "We've cut billions and billions; last year alone we cut $14 billion out of our state spending and that didn't win me any popularity contests. You factor those things in and our general revenue spending has gone down 10.2 percent since the time I came in."

The debate was hosted by Belo Corp., which owns The Dallas Morning News and television stations in Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas, where the debate took place at the studios of WFAA.

Tom Leppert, a former Dallas Mayor and career business executive, said Texas should not send a career politician or a government lawyer to Washington, but instead choose an experienced businessman.

Leppert: "I have created thousands of jobs. We don't need someone who goes out and gives speeches about free enterprise, but send someone who has been out there and done those sorts of things."

Former ESPN college football analyst Craig James portrayed himself as a values candidate.

James: "This country was founded on the principle of Christianity. The moral fiber of this country is in trouble, and I will stand and honor the Ten Commandments ..."

All of the candidates denounced government spending, the federal health care overhaul and illegal immigration.

They all agreed that private employers should not be required to provide insurance coverage for birth control.

Cruz: "It's easy for the government to mandate all kinds of things that might be wonderful. But every one of those things drives up the cost of health insurance and it is why our health insurance market is so broken right now."

One area of disagreement was whether to build a wall along the full length of the Texas-Mexico border. Cruz said a wall was necessary, while the others supported other means of controlling the border.

One segment of the debate allowed the candidates to question one another.

Cruz was asked to explain why he sent a text message to James hoping to arrange for James to ask him about his repeated attacks on Dewhurst for not attending more joint appearances.

James issued a news release detailing the text, saying he felt Cruz had placed him in an awkward position.

The primary election is set for May 31. Early voting begins May 14. The primary was delayed from March 6 because of legal disputes over the state's new political maps, and many experts worry that the changed date and the resolution of the Republican presidential nominee will lead to low voter turnout.

Party activists, who are more likely to vote, have greater sway when turnout is low.

Therefore the candidates have all tried to paint themselves as the "true conservative" in the race and have attended small events aimed at loyalists across the state. Most advertising so far has been limited to cable television and local radio, though Dewhurst launched a statewide broadcast television ad on Friday.

If one candidate does not get more than 50 percent of the May 29 vote, the top two vote winners will face a run-off on July 31.