SAN ANTONIO – As the clock ticks down in Texas toward in the runoff election for a U.S. Senate seat, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and tea party-backed Ted Cruz are making appeals to their voting base.
The race is being watched nationally as a test for the tea party against well-entrenched Texas Republicans who aren't used to losing. Texas hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Whichever candidate wins Tuesday's runoff will be an overwhelming favorite against the Democratic nominee in November for the right to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Dewhurst, who once looked like a slam-dunk for the job, is now believed to be in a major fight after failing to win a majority in the nine-candidate GOP primary on May 29. He has overseen the Texas Senate from the powerful lieutenant governor's post since 2003 and has been endorsed by popular Gov. Rick Perry and much of the state's Republican establishment.
Cruz is the son of a Cuban immigrant who has a fiery public speaking style that has fired up grassroots groups.
An Air Force veteran who also was stationed in Bolivia for the CIA, Dewhurst spoke Monday in San Antonio at one of the oldest Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in the country, flanked by Perry and Peter Holt, the owner of the city's NBA franchise, the Spurs.
His voice cracked as Dewhurst described his father, Lt. Col. David H. Dewhurst, who was a World War II pilot who was home from the fighting when he was killed by a drunk driver when his son was just 3.
We are seeing a high turnout which I think is terrific because everything we're seeing is that conservatives are energized and excited and showing up to vote.
"This is a crusade. My dad flew 85 missions. He didn't have a chance to fly his 86th," the lieutenant governor said, close to tears. "Let's make this his 86th mission."
His comments came after retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot Jake Ellzey said at the same rally, "I dare Ted Cruz to come in to any VFW post anywhere in the state and talk about fighting."
"Mr. Cruz, you're not a fighter because you've never worn the uniform," Ellzey said.
Asked if that was a fair assessment, Dewhurst said, "I agree with the commander."
"Normally, I've found in my life that the louder you speak, probably, the less of a fighter you are," he continued. "All the fighters I've had a chance and the honor to serve with didn't pat themselves on the back, were pretty humble men and women."
Cruz describes himself as the race's only true fighter for conservative values. A spokesman for his campaign, James Bernsen, said Monday that Ellzey's and Dewhurst's comments offended him as a veteran of the Iraq war.
"I find it offensive to make it a litmus test," Bernsen said. "Ted is very supportive of the military. But this is not something that should be politicized, period."
Cruz has received millions from national conservative groups including the anti-tax Club for Growth, which have targeted Dewhurst as too moderate for occasionally working with Democratic state senators to ensure key legislation got approved over the years. An energy business owner, the lieutenant governor has lent his campaign $24.5 million.
At Monday's rally, Ellzey addressed the out-of-state support for Cruz, saying that "1.8 million Texas veterans know that a slash and burn mentality as espoused by the tea party is only going to hurt our veterans."
Dewhurst and Perry then headed to Dallas for a fundraiser with top Republicans donors. They also appeared at a Dewhurst phone banking center in the city with the Republican primary's third-place finisher, ex-Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and former NFL running back and ESPN commentator Craig James, who finished fourth. Both have since endorsed Dewhurst.
Cruz, meanwhile, made 11 appearances on radio stations throughout Texas and also had a string of television interviews, including addressing a national audience on Fox News Channel.
Early voting ended Friday, and about 3.3 percent of registered Republicans cast ballots — a stronger turnout than expected, especially for a runoff coming so deep into summer doldrums. The initial primary was delayed from Super Tuesday to May because of a legal battle over redistricting maps drawn by the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature.
"We are seeing a high turnout which I think is terrific because everything we're seeing is that conservatives are energized and excited and showing up to vote," Cruz said on the Joe Pags Show on WOAI radio in San Antonio. "This race will come down 100 percent to turnout."
Voting totals in Harris County — which includes Houston, where both Dewhurst and Cruz live — were solid, with more than 70,000 GOP ballots cast early, while nearly 34,000 Republicans voted early in Dallas County.
That could be good news for Dewhurst, who won Dallas County with about 24,500 votes during the primary. But also receiving strong support there in May was Leppert, who took 23,000 primary votes. If Leppert voters now go for Dewhurst, higher turnout could be good news for the lieutenant governor in Dallas County.
Cruz, meanwhile, won Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, during the primary. Nearly 35,000 people voted early there in runoff balloting.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.