For those who haven't been paying attention, the Texas race has now become a toss up between Congressman O'Rourke and Senator Cruz.Ahead of Ted Cruz-Beto O'Rourke debate, race rated 'toss up'; what to watch in Texas Senate showdown
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Updated at 8:50 a.m with race now raced "toss up" by top handicapper.
The shadowboxing ends Friday night when Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Beto O'Rourke meet in the first debate of a contentious and surprisingly competitive Texas campaign.
The challenger, a three-term El Paso Democrat, blistered past the first-term tea party GOP senator in fundraising this summer. Recent polls offer bewildering contradictions — anything from a 9-point lead for Cruz to a slight edge for O’Rourke.
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On Friday morning, Cook Political Report -- a top independent analyst-- shifted its rating of the contest to "toss up," a stunning blow to Cruz and Republicans after decades of GOP dominance in Texas.
"The momentum in this race is on our side," the challenger's campaign declared.
Signaling the intense interest the Texas contest has generated, the hosts have issued credentials to more than 120 journalists from around the country. C-Span will air it live.
It’s an epic clash between a conservative champion and an unabashedly progressive challenger, with enormous stakes not just for them but for the direction of the nation.
President Donald Trump will hold a rally next month with Cruz. O’Rourke has said for over a year that he would vote to impeach the president. So that hangs over the debate, too.
The hour-long event is hosted by The Dallas Morning News, Southern Methodist University and KXAS-TV (NBC 5). It will be broadcast live at 6 p.m. and streamed live at nbcdfw.com and dallasnews.com. It will be rebroadcast at 8 a.m. Sunday.
The campaigns announced this and two other televised debates last Friday. The candidates will meet again on Sunday, Sept. 30, at the University of Houston, and Tuesday, Oct. 16, in San Antonio.
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They also agreed to separate hourlong town hall events on CNN in October. O’Rourke’s is scheduled for Oct. 18 in the Rio Grande Valley.
Here’s what to watch for:
Will they find any common ground?
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On immigration, Cruz is a hardliner. He has embraced Trump’s support for a border wall and defended the administration’s policy of prosecuting anyone caught crossing into the country illegally — a "zero tolerance" tactic that led to the detention and separation of thousands of migrants earlier this year.
O’Rourke calls the wall a ridiculous waste of money and an offense to Texas’ No. 1 trading partner. He led an emotional protest outside the Tornillo tent camp in the West Texas desert on Father’s Day to spotlight the family separation crisis.
On gun violence, Cruz has used his Senate perch to block any erosion of Second Amendment rights, while O’Rourke calls for curbs on sale of assault-style weapons and universal background checks for gun buyers.
O’Rourke gained national renown and Hollywood cachet with his defense of NFL players who protest police brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem. Cruz has seized the issue to appeal to veterans and the patriotism of other Texans, painting the protests and O’Rourke as disrespectful.
Pick most any topic, symbolic or pocketbook, and the rivals disagree: abortion rights, tax policy, the future of Obamacare. Both support free trade and have balked at the tariffs and trade skirmishes emanating from the White House.
Beyond that, the moderators — political writer Gromer Jeffers Jr. of The News and Julie Fine of NBC5 -— won’t have much trouble exposing gaping chasms.
What Cruz needs to show
Confidence, humor and a fighting spirit.
The flurry of polls since early August showing a statistical tie or close to it has given Cruz voters and GOP strategists heartburn. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994, and if Cruz falls, Democrats will have an opening to move the state into their column in presidential contests — a shift in the electoral map that, with New York and California, would all but ensure their control of the White House for years.
The Cook report's chief Senate analyst, Jennifer Duffy, wrote Friday with the ratings change that the race is "defying all odds and expectations."
"Cruz isn't terribly popular, and while that might not necessarily be a problem is a red state...O'Rourke and his message have generated a great deal of enthusiasm among Democrats and independents....
"O'Rourke has earned this rating," she wrote, "but getting the last couple of points to overtake Cruz and win the seat will be difficult though not utterly impossible."
Cruz has spent the summer warning Republican voters not to be complacent. In private, conservative groups allied with Cruz have geared up for a rescue mission.
White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney recently told GOP donors that Cruz may not be “likeable” enough to win. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, an ally of both Cruz and Trump, secretly lobbied the White House to deploy Trump to Texas to get the senator over the finish line.
Cruz dismissed Mulvaney as "some political guy in Washington."
Whatever millions that independent groups and the GOP’s Senate campaign arm spend to protect Cruz and Texas, it’s money they could have spent in states where TV time is much cheaper. Cruz will have to show that he’s a winner.
As Barack Obama said of Hillary Clinton in a Democratic debate in 2008, Cruz needs to show that he’s “likeable enough.”
Sen. Ted Cruz debates future President Donald Trump at The Venetian Las Vegas on Dec. 15, 2015.(ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz debates future President Donald Trump at The Venetian Las Vegas on Dec. 15, 2015. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
What O’Rourke needs to show
Let’s assume that few voters choosing between Cruz and O'Rourke are actually persuadable.
Campaigns between candidates with such different priorities and ideology aren't really about moving some phantom "swing" voter. They're about motivating your own side. Cruz says it's a turnout election. O'Rourke says Texas isn't a Republican state but a nonvoting state.
They're saying the same thing.
O’Rourke needs to persuade Democratic voters in Texas, and left-leaning donors around the country, that the race is winnable.
Soft spots: Cruz
Cruz’s tight embrace of the divisive president is both an asset and an albatross.
The senator himself can come across as arrogant and smarmy. He has a sense of humor that ranges from biting and topical to silly dad humor and references to The Simpsons cartoon or his favorite movie, The Princess Bride.
It's appealing to many and off-putting to some.
He also has a hard time conceding that he's been wrong about anything of substance.
That could come off as rigid by comparison to O'Rourke, who on gun control and other controversial topics always frames his stance by conceding that reasonable people can disagree.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke stumps in Plano on Sept. 15, 2018. (LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Soft spots: O’Rourke
According to polls, he's out of step with many Texas voters on a host of topics, among them impeachment, border security and gun control.
An arrest report that recently surfaced from a drunken driving incident when he was 26 — not exactly a kid — cited a witness saying he tried to flee the scene.
Cruz can pick away at each of these vulnerabilities.
As an orator, the Democrat tends toward run-on sentences. He inspires friendly crowds with soaring rhetoric and gauzy visions of the future of Texas. Time constraints during the debate won’t allow for long-winded wind-ups.
If he can’t get to the point, Cruz will shred him.
And as the barrage of attack ads since Labor Day have shown, Cruz has a thick folder of research on O’Rourke. He’s eager to chip away at the challenger’s image as a charismatic fresh face.
He'll paint him as a gun-grabbing liberal who wants to legalize marijuana and maybe even narcotics. In short, he'll seek to “educate voters,” as campaign professionals like to say, regarding a myriad of positions on which the Democrat is out of step with many of them.
Will debate experience pay off?
Cruz, a champion debater at Princeton University, excelled as an appellate lawyer after Harvard Law School. He argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and has 20 presidential debates under his belt from the 2016 primaries.
O’Rourke’s experience with face-to-face confrontation is thinner. He had a hard-fought primary in 2012, when he unseated longtime Rep. Silvestre Reyes. But he's endured nothing like the glare of the spotlight he’ll be under Friday night.
Illustration of various faces from the 18 races, including Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke, Lupe Valdez and Greg Abbott surrounding the Texas Capitol Building
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Can Cruz rattle O’Rourke?
Cruz on Thursday set the stage for spirited debate by attacking O'Rourke over a 5-year-old episode involving a potential ethics violation.
In November 2013 — a year after Cruz and O’Rourke won their respective seats — Legistorm, an organization that collects congressional data, informed O’Rourke that he apparently violated the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which regulates stock trades by lawmakers.
O’Rourke had bought shares in Twitter during an initial public offering two days after the House Ethics Committee cited the tech company in a memo that warned lawmakers against investing in certain IPOs.
O’Rourke disclosed his purchase, but that didn’t erase the potential violation. After Legistorm flagged the infraction, he reported himself to the ethics panel and told the El Paso Times that he had missed the memo. He apologized for “not exercising due diligence” and said he wasn’t aware that his stockbroker had planned to invest his funds in IPOs.
On the ethics panel’s recommendation, O’Rourke sold his shares and sent the $7,136 in profit to the U.S. Treasury. He also told his broker to “stop any further transactions” of that kind, according to Legistorm.
“His actions reflect a troubling disregard for the standards expected of members of Congress and directly contradict his campaign rhetoric promoting government accountability,” Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said Thursday.
O’Rourke didn’t respond. But if the senator hits him on the issue during the debate, he’ll get another chance to show how well he keeps his cool and can explain away such missteps.
Washington correspondent Tom Benning contributed to this report.
Tonight is the debate. You can watch it here: