An Ivy League debate champion went up against a rowing team captain Friday night, and you might figure how that went.
For 55 minutes in their first of three U.S. Senate campaign debates, Sen. Ted Cruz delivered a faithful and fiercely conservative Republican message against mellow Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
But in the last minutes, with O’Rourke glaring as if Cruz had tripped him in the Capitol hallway, Cruz’s final zinger backfired and he let O’Rourke go away with the biggest cheer of the night.
Asked the only softball question in a barnburner of a debate — “Tell us something you admire about your opponent” — O’Rourke talked gently about Cruz’s family and said: “I have no question that Senator Cruz wants to do the best for America.”
Cruz responded with his now-familiar smirk and talked about his and O’Rourke’s children, but then couldn’t resist one last lunge for the jugular.
Cruz said O’Rourke “believes in what he’s fighting for … [Sen.] Bernie Sanders believes in what he’s fighting for. He believes in socialism … I think you are absolutely sincere like Bernie that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes. … You’re fighting for the principles you believe in, and I respect that.”
O’Rourke stared icily as Cruz turned a sweet exchange into one last sarcastic political dig. Then O’Rourke turned to the McFarlin Auditorium crowd and deadpanned, “True to form.”
The crowd — fairly evenly divided — roared.
Look, political debates are not supposed to be polite or nice. Candidates are out to win, not to make small talk.
In an election with no presidential campaign at the top of the ballot and not much of a governor’s race, Cruz was out to prove to Texas Republicans that he’s worth showing up for on Election Day, and that he can be just as aggressive as President Donald Trump.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, was out to persuade urban Texas Democrats, particularly minority voters unimpressed with his barnstorming tour of mostly Republican rural Texas, to get behind the party’s first genuinely competitive statewide campaign in 20 years.
Watching from the University of Houston, which will host the next debate Sept. 30, political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus took particular note of O’Rourke’s comments about immigration and social justice.
O’Rourke “was aggressive from the start, especially on the border wall issue, and didn’t let up,” Rottinghaus wrote by email.
“O’Rourke pivoted to racial issues several times in terms of inequality in the criminal justice system and drug crimes, which helped him to position himself for higher turnout among core Democratic constituencies.”
Cruz, meanwhile, ran through a near-perfect checklist of Republican red-meat topics: the Second Amendment, flag-burning, Hillary Clinton, illegal drugs and socialism.
TCU’s 36-year political science professor Jim Riddlesperger wrote by email that Cruz “can explain the Republican agenda in a way that should be the envy of Donald Trump.”
“Cruz had as his mantra to tie O’Rourke to the national Democratic leaders and to characterize him as a ‘socialist’ by inference if not in so many words,“ Riddlesperger wrote
Afterward, Cruz left the auditorium to join young supporters at Dave & Buster’s, a restaurant and bar with games.
O’Rourke spoke to reporters briefly.
“Senator Cruz has a tendency to mischaracterize a position,” he said.
“If we’re talking about NFL players who are kneeling during the national anthem at a football game to call attention to injustice in this country, he’ll talk about flag-burning. If we’re talking about ending a war on drugs that’s become a war on people, and some people over other people in this country, and ending the prohibition on marijuana, he’ll talk about legalizing heroin or fentanyl or cocaine. No one wants to do any of those things.”
He said his “true to form” putdown wasn’t planned.
“It was just what came to mind and I said it,” he said.
Overall, it was one of the best Texas debates anyone could remember, partly because of the 1-hour format, tight timekeeping and specific questions.
This was miles from Gov. Greg Abbott’s low-key 2014 debate against Wendy Davis, or from the four-way 2006 gubernatorial debate where independent candidate Kinky Friedman completely punted a question to Gov. Rick Perry: “I don’t know. Rick, what do you think?”
Cruz would have won on a debate scorecard. But O’Rourke held his ground on stage.
“This is the first debate like this I’ve ever done,” O’Rourke said.
This debate was months in the making.
They do it again next week.