In Texas, a rising conservative star takes on the establishment

Former Texas Solicitor General and U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz addresses a crowd of about 20 supporters at a barbeque restaurant in Temple, Texas, on Saturday, May 26, 2012. Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are the front-runners in a crowded field vying for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in Tuesday's Texas primary. AP Photo/Will Weissert

Former Texas Solicitor General and Senate candidate Ted Cruz addresses supporters at a barbeque restaurant in Temple, Texas, on May 26, 2012.
AP Photo/Will Weissert

(CBS News) Hoping to build on momentum from Richard Mourdock's Tea Party-driven victory over Richard Lugar in the Indiana Senate primary earlier this month, the Tea Party is setting its sights on another possible win Tuesday, this time in Texas.

In Tuesday's Texas Republican Senate primary, Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American lawyer with strong conservative bona fides, is hoping to force a runoff against David Dewhurst, lieutenant governor to Rick Perry and the longtime establishment favorite. Former Dallas mayor and businessman Tom Leppert is currently running in third, while former NFL running back and ESPN announcer Craig James trails in fourth place. The four candidates are running for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The winner will go head-to-head with the winner of Tuesday night's Democratic primary. Paul Sadler, a former state representative, and Sean Hubbard, a first-time candidate, are vying for that spot. In the deeply red state, however, the Republican nominee is expected to prevail in November.

Recent polls show Dewhurst well ahead of Cruz, and the consistent front-runner in the race. But in order to avoid a run-off this July, he needs to earn at least 50 percent of the vote - a threshold he has yet to breach in recent surveys. If Cruz can maintain his second-place positioning and keep Dewhurst under the 50 percent mark, he could build on a recent surge in momentum and publicity.

"The numbers tell an interesting story. I think Cruz has ascended," said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics project and co-directed the recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll on the race. "I think he has done a pretty good job of establishing himself as a contender for the conservative mantle. But it looks like that fight is still going on."

"I think the tale here is that Ted Cruz has made a pretty dramatic run at a candidate in Dewhurst who should have been very formidable -- almost to the point of unchallengeable -- and has made a run at it," Henson added. "He has mounted a real offensive to the right of Dewhurst and has succeeded in peeling off a lot of support."

The question is whether or not it will be enough.

An untested candidate

Cruz, Texas' 41-year-old fomer solicitor general, has never been elected for statewide office - but the candidate has racked up considerable support from high-profile conservatives in his bid for the Republican nomination. Last Thursday, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave Cruz his backing, citing what he called his "wow factor." Earlier this month, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin endorsed Cruz, as has Texas Rep. Ron Paul, S.C. Sen. Jim DeMint, and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey. In the Washington Post, George Will called him "a candidate as good as it gets."

The son of Cuban refugees, Cruz attended Princeton, Harvard Law School, and then clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He advocates for auditing the Federal Reserve, moving as close as possible to a flat tax, and significantly reducing the size of the federal government. Cruz doesn't identify explicitly as a Tea Party member on his website, but according to Texas Republican strategist Corbin Casteel, he has been actively courting national Tea Party support for upward of a year.

Despite his seemingly impressive conservative credentials, Cruz has from the get-go faced a formidable challenge in going up against Dewhurst. The lieutenant to popular Texas Governor Rick Perry, Dewhurst has several endorsements racked up, including that of Perry and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. And as Casteel argues, Dewhurst "can take just as much credit for" Perry's conservative record as can the governor himself.

In the Texas legislature, the lieutenant governor wields more power than in many other states.

"For people that like Gov. Perry's record, then he can make the point that they should like his record," said Texas Republican Party chair Steve Munisteri. "All of the pieces of legislation that Perry got through that are popular, the lieutenant governor can take credit for as well."

"There is a sense of comfort in Dewhurst," said Casteel. "Dewhurst is a known commodity who looks and sounds like a senator."

Dewhurst's establishment reputation may be a double-edged sword, however, in a political climate that favors anti-establishment candidates.

"There does seem to be a sense that there's more excitement for Cruz," Casteel said. "Whether or not that will translate into more votes, we'll see."

A Costly Campaign

Dewhurst, who made millions in oil and gas prior to taking office, has devoted substantial personal resources to his effort.

As of May 9, he had loaned his campaign more than $12 million, according to FEC filings. On May 14, he lent it another $1.2 million, according to Real Clear Politics.

Cruz had lent only $70,000 to his campaign as of May 9th, but according to Real Clear Politics, he poured in another $400,000 on May 18.

Both candidates have benefited from an influx of money to outside groups, which have advertised heavily - and often, nastily - to advance their preferred candidates.

Dewhurst has two super PACs supporting him. The Texas Conservatives Fund has spent more than $2 million on ad buys and media production attacking Cruz, and the Conservative Renewal PAC has spent upwards of $700,000 supporting Dewhurst and attacking Leppert.

Cruz, meanwhile, has the backing of several Tea Party-aligned groups.

The Club For Growth Action PAC said it had spent nearly $2 million opposing Dewhurst. Meanwhile, Cruz also has the backing of Freedomworks for America, as well as Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, which has spent more than $300,000 in support of Cruz.

And in recent days, with polling data suggesting that Leppert supporters favor Dewhurst over Cruz, pro-Dewhurst forces have begun unloading a series of negative attacks - and the website LiberalLeppert.com -- on the former mayor, hoping to entice enough support away from him to bump the lieutenant governor over the 50 percent mark.

Race to the End

Polls suggest that Dewhurst is just a few points away from reaching the threshold he needs to avoid a runoff. Munisteri puts the odds of that at about 50-50, and Henson said he could see Dewhurst surpassing that number by a point or two.

Cruz is counting on the alternative. He argues that if he is able to force a runoff between himself and Dewhurst, he'll be in a good position to motivate his supporters to vote on July 31, when turnout is likely to be low.

"In a runoff, the turnout will drop precipitously. It could be as low as a third of the turnout on election day," he told the Associated Press on Saturday. "[Dewhurst] knows that if this goes to a runoff, he loses."

Still, it's an uphill battle for the candidate.

"I don't know a single candidate that, given a choice, would rather be second and arguing for enthusiasm than coming in first," said Munisteri.

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