The debate was contentious from the start. The moderator immediately brought up the text message Ted Cruz sent to Craig James a couple of days before the debate, suggesting that James ask Dewhurst why he had chosen to skip 32 candidate forums. James had responded that Cruz was trying to rig the debate. “Why not show up?” was the first question to Dewhurst, who said, “I’ve got my campaign to run, they have theirs. I’m out talking to a lot of voters every week. I talked to several thousand this week.” Before the subject was allowed to die, Leppert said, “Why talk about texts when there are really critical issues out there.” Wayne Slater asked about what candidates were willing to cut in the big budget areas — defense, Medicare, Medicaid, social security. Cruz said he was perfectly willing to cut defense; James was willing to cut if military leaders agreed; Cruz was for “fundamental reform” of the big entitlement programs. Dewhurst said he was opposed to the Obama defense cuts, but he was willing to look at procurement, he wanted Congress out of it. Leppert said, “Everything has to be on the table, Congress tries to protect their districts. He said he had laid out specific programs regarding Medicaid. Cruz made the rather lame statement that he would cut pork. Then Cruz segued into an attack on Dewhurst: There’s a clear contrast. You never cut one penny from the state budget. Dewhurst was allowed to respond; he said he had cut the budget 7-8 times in the last nine years. He told Cruz he should look at general revenue, that’s the only thing budget writers control, not “all funds.” Then Dewhurst said that he followed the advice of every conservative group, don’t spend more than population growth plus inflation. James said he was sending a signal for cutting, he had a major reform for Medicaid. The next round of questioning was about contraceptives. Should there be a requirement that companies supply them to their employees. Leppert said he didn’t want the government coming up with policies that interfered with freedom. It should be the company’s decision. James: Contraception is up to a woman, but the employer should be free to do as he wished. James was for family planning. (“Family planning works.”) I’m for freedom for women to make decisions but not for telling the Catholic church what they have to do, it’s an intrusion on freedom. Dewhurst: “I oppose Obamacare. Should companies be required to provide contraceptives? Then he veered, unwisely, into a discussion of whether health care in the U.S. is as good as abroad. “We have the best doctors in the world, but the outcomes are not as good as in Europe.” The next question was about illegal immigration. Do you support a wall? Cruz–Yes, I’m for fences, walls, drones, helicopters, boots on the ground. I’m opposed to amnesty. He accused Dewhurst of supporting sanctuary cities. Dewhurst said he opposed amnesty. He would triple the size of the Border Patrol. On the question of instate tuition for illegal aliens, Cruz said Dewhurst assigned the bill to a committee headed by a liberal Democrat. “We need leaders with backbone,” Cruz said. James opposed a wall. He wanted to turn border security over to the military. Leppert joined the crowd in opposing amnesty. He wanted to de-incentivize immigratiohn by securing the border. He opposed a wall (“It won’t work”). “Ask them (Border Patrol) what we need. The next question was about the Affordable Care Act. The questioner pointed out that several features of the act were very popular, young adults staying on their parents’ health policies until 26 years of age, no denial of care for preexisting conditions, no limits on care. None of the candidates dared to say anything good about Obamacare. James said people should learn to take care of themselves. Dewhurst said we had to take a look at the cost. Leppert said the problem is the government is in the system, we’ll have a single payer system. Cruz, last to speak, said he didn’t support mandates from the federal government. He favored “more of a free market system.” He took issue with Dewhurst’s claim that European outcomes are better than those in America. Dewhurst said we need electronic records. The final part of the debate was candidate-to-candidate questions. Dewhurst to James: You’re a proud Texan. Would you support a good conservative from Texas to be in the Senate leadership. (Cornyn, of course.) James: “I’ll support anyone who will uphold the constitution.” Cruz: Senator Cornyn is a friend. The five strongest conservatives in the Senate support me.” James, a Santorum supporter, asked Cruz, “You had a chance to support a conservative, Rick Santorum, for president. Why didn’t you support him. Cruz said, I made the decision to let primary voters decide. Cruz asked Leppert if he was aware that Dewhurst supported a wage tax — it came across as a phony question. Leppert didn’t take the bait. “You’ve been a terrific staffer,” he said to Cruz, but to me business is a career. That’s the difference between us. I’ve done it. Reporters got the last round of questions. Dewhurst was asked about a state income tax. “I’ve always opposed a state income tax,” he said. “Your facts are wrong. The next question was about money Dewhurst raised from the lobby. In terms of dollars, you raised more than Pelosi or Harry Reid. Dewhurst was taken aback. “I’m a lifelong conservative businessman,” he said. “I want to work with companies and business leaders.” James was asked whether his personal faith would affect who he represented. Gays? People in civil unions? “I support marriage between a man and a woman. Our country is based on Christian principles. Leppert was asked a tough one. “Your candidacy is based on business experienced. But you were on the Washington Mutual Board. What was your responsibility [for the collapse of the company]? Doesn’t that call your claim into question? That was a killer for Leppert, I thought. He spoke a little bit about WAMU’s assets and ended up saying, “The reality is, as a CEO, I created real jobs.” Cruz was asked about his father’s role as a freedom fighter in Cuba. It gets very complicated very quickly. His father fought against Batista, the dictator. But he also fought with Castro, against Batista. Ultimately, he fled the country. The reporter was trying to get behind the mythic story, but he didn’t quite get there. The last reporter’s question tried to pin down Dewhurst about his budget cutting. “I cut general revenue spending in 2003, he said. I’ve cut billions and billions of dollars.” But the reporter countered with an increase in state employees that took place on Dewhurst’s watch. Dewhurst was clearly uncomfortable at the end. He had to pause and collect himself. * * * * I thought Leppert was doing very well until the WAMU question came along, and it really took the wind out of his sails. Great question. Cruz tried to attack Dewhurst at every turn, and I thought he got under the Dew’s skin a time or two. But Cruz has only one argument for why he should go to the Senate: that he is supported by the five most conservative senators. This was a good debate, in part because the candidates have gotten better over the past few debates, and in part because the format really allowed for a lot of issues to come up. Had it not been for the WAMU question, I would have given a slight edge to Leppert.