DALLAS — Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Beto O'Rourke engaged in a fierce clash Friday night, exposing deep rifts — and a clear choice for Texas voters — over immigration, police brutality, gun violence and the best way to deal with President Donald Trump.
The rivals glared at each other throughout the debate, and their words were often biting — projecting mutual disdain if not outright contempt.
Cruz called his rival a socialist. O'Rourke depicted the senator as derelict in his duty to stand up to an out-of-control president.
"His focus seems to be on fighting for illegal immigrants and forgetting the millions of Americans — you know, Americans are dreamers also," Cruz said as he and his challenger skirmished over the plight of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
O'Rourke shot back, pointing to Cruz's support for a $30 billion border wall, and pursuing policies that would entail rounding up and deporting 12 million people. "I'll tell you about being out of touch with Texas," he said. "Imagine the cost. Imagine the stain on our conscience for generations going forward."
Toward the end, when the moderators asked each to say something nice about the other, O'Rourke lauded Cruz for his dedication to public service, and the family sacrifices that has entailed. Cruz echoed that — but then quickly pivoted to a pointed attack on O'Rourke, painting him as a socialist akin to Sen. Bernie Sanders.
O'Rourke's retort, aimed at showing that even when he's saying something nice, Cruz isn't so nice: "True to form."
The first debate between the rivals took place at Southern Methodist University, co-hosted by The Dallas Morning News and KXAS-TV, which provided moderators Gromer Jeffers Jr. and Julie Fine. It was broadcast and streamed live online.
The challenger, a three-term El Paso Democrat, blistered past the first term tea party Republican senator in fund-raising this summer. And he may be pulling even further ahead. In August alone, donations just through the ActBlue portal topped $8 million from nearly 200,000 donors, according to ProPublica — putting O'Rourke over the $30 million mark.
Polling has given both hope and heartburn to both sides.
In recent weeks, polls have shown anything from a 9-point lead for Cruz to a 2-point lead for O'Rourke. Hours before the debate, the independent Cook Political Report, a top handicapper, shifted the rating to "toss-up" — a stunning development for a state that hasn't elected a Democrats statewide since 1994.
The rivals have agreed to two more debates: Sunday, Sept. 30, at the University of Houston, and Tuesday, Oct. 16, in San Antonio.
O'Rourke is running his first statewide race. While he's fielded countless questions at town hall-style events in the last 18 months, he has nothing close to Cruz's experience on the high wire of a live televised debate.
Before he competed in 20 presidential debates during the 2016 primaries, Cruz argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Before that, he excelled at Harvard Law School, and was a champion debater at Princeton.
Both were poised and combative.
One of the testier exchanges involved their response to a shooting earlier this month in Dallas.
Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean in his own apartment. She has told investigators she parked on the wrong level of their apartment complex and mistook his apartment for her own.
"The officer contended that it was a tragic mistake," Cruz said. But until the investigation and perhaps even a trial is complete, it's premature to call for firing Guyger, as O'Rourke did.
"Without knowing the facts, Congressman O'Rourke is ready to convict her, ready to fire her. It's a troubling pattern" of assuming the worst of police, Cruz said — of inflaming mistrust of police through "irresponsible and hateful rhetoric."
O'Rourke called that a "slander... This is your trick in the trade — to confuse and to incite fear."
The issue is closely related to O'Rourke's defense of NFL football players who have sought to draw attention to police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.
"You can protest in a way that doesn't disrespect the flag," Cruz said, insinuating — as he has before — that it's a short leap to flag burning.
O'Rourke called that misleading. "No one here, myself included, has suggested that anyone should do that."
Cruz's tight embrace of the divisive president is both an asset and an albatross. Democrats would love for the Texas contest to become a referendum on Trump.
The senator's chances could hinge on enthusiasm among Trump backers in Texas. The president plans to campaign next month with Cruz, after lobbying by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a mutual ally.
Cruz touts his alliance with the president on judges, tax and trade policy, investment in NASA, and even on presidential pardons.
But during the 2016 campaign, Cruz called Trump a pathological liar, and Trump belittled him as "Lyin' Ted." The future president alleged that Cruz's dad took part in John F. Kennedy's assassination, and mocked how Cruz's wife looked.
Rafael Cruz and Heidi Cruz were in the audience Friday night as Cruz sought to swat down the suggestion that his embrace of Trump has come at the cost of his dignity. Cruz didn't flinch at the question.
"There were some hard shots thrown," he said, adding that his dad has been his hero his whole life, and "Heidi is my best friend."
But "after the election in 2016, I faced a choice. Donald Trump had been elected president and we had an opportunity ... to do something extraordinary. ... I have worked hand in hand with the president on substance." The achievements, he said, include economic growth and lower unemployment.
"I could have chosen to make it about myself ... to say my feelings are hurt and take my marbles and go home," he said.
Texans, he said, "wonder where our junior senator is" when Trump defends Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and undermines democratic institutions.
"If the president attacks you personally, your wife, your father, that's your business," he said, but when Trump attacks fundamental American values, that's everyone's business. "We need a U.S. senator who will stand up to this president where we must" and "make sure that we are a nation of laws and not of men."
O'Rourke has said for a year that he would vote to impeach the president. Cruz went out of his way to note that, calculating that resistance to impeachment outweighs dismay over Trump's belittling of his attorney general, his soft spot for Putin, the convictions of Trump's campaign chairman and others, and the ongoing special counsel inquiry.
One of the starkest clashes was on gun violence and gun control.
Cruz said O'Rourke wants to erode gun rights by blocking conservative judges and trying to unwind recent Supreme Court rulings protecting individuals' rights to own guns.
"Did you support Hillary Clinton?" Cruz asked O'Rourke.
"That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment," O'Rourke shot back.
He said "weapons of war belong on the battlefield," not in communities, schools and churches. That was a nod to his support for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. O'Rourke also wants to strengthen background checks on gun buyers, saying states that tightened their checks "have seen a 50 percent reduction" in gun injuries and deaths.
Cruz was asked if anything Christine Blasey Ford said in her upcoming testimony might dissuade him from voting to confirm U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge
Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
"Absolutely," he said, though he did not elaborate.
Cruz quickly pivoted, repeating what he'd said Monday — that O'Rourke wants liberals on the bench to subvert conservative victories at the polls.
"He wants liberal judicial activists on the court who will impose their policies," Cruz said. "I believe Texans want constitutionalists on the Supreme Court who will defend the First Amendment (and) religious liberty, who will defend the Second Amendment."
O'Rourke hit back by accusing Cruz of pushing extremists for federal judgeships, including Jeff Mateer, who supported conversion therapy for gays and lesbians, and described transgender children as part of "Satan's plan," and Andrew Oldham, who wouldn't agree that the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision on school segregation was decided correctly.
He said the FBI should look into Ford's allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 36 years ago.
"Dr. Ford's allegations should be investigated by the FBI. Full stop," O'Rourke said.
"There is precedent for that," he said, referring to Anita Hill, who accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when he was her boss at a federal agency.
Cruz needled his rival for caring too much about illegal immigrants.
O'Rourke called it morally right and economically smart to provide citizenship for so-called "Dreamers — and potentially, for other unauthorized immigrants as well.
Cruz would deport the so-called Dreamers, which economists say would impose billions in costs on the U.S. economy, O'Rourke said.
"We will gain hundreds of billions to the positive if we keep them here," he said.
O'Rourke said he also favors a path to citizenship for adults who entered the country illegally.
Cruz boiled his immigration stance to four words: "Legal good, illegal bad."
Noting his father emigrated legally from Cuba to the U.S., Cruz said it's unfair to those waiting for admission to grant a path to citizenship for those who didn't follow the law.
"Granting U.S. citizenship to 12 million people who are here illegally is a serious mistake. Congressman O'Rourke is out of step with Texas," Cruz said.
Giving his first answer about a recently revealed detail about his drunken driving arrest 20 years ago, O'Rourke denied an unnamed motorist's account in the arrest records that he tried to flee.
In September 1998, just after O'Rourke turned 26, he was arrested for drunken driving on Interstate 10 west of El Paso, near the New Mexico state line.
Though no one was injured, police reports recently obtained by the Houston Chronicle said O'Rourke was driving a Volvo and struck a truck driving in the same direction. The impact sent his car careening across a grassy median and pointing in the opposite direction, the reports said. They quoted an eyewitness as saying O'Rourke tried to drive away from the scene, and the witness stopped him.
On Friday night, O'Rourke said, "I did not try to leave the scene of the accident, though driving drunk, which I did, is a terrible mistake for which there is no excuse or justification or defense. I will not try to provide one."
The DUI charge was dismissed after O'Rourke completed a court-approved diversion program.
Since his arrest, O'Rourke said he's cleaned up his act. He started a business, got married, had three kids and launched a career in public service, he noted.
Cruz declined an opportunity to question O'Rourke's account of the 1998 incident.
"I don't intend to get into Congressman O'Rourke's personal history," he said. "But I will keep the focus on issues and substance and records. And I will say that as a member of Congress, he introduced legislation that would make it easier for those with drug convictions to get a driver's license. That's a real mistake."
Cruz, noting that a sister died of a drug overdose, said drug abuse is a personal issue for him.