I attended the Democratic Senate debate last night on the University of Texas campus. Four candidates have entered the primary, but the debate was between State Representative Rick Noriega (who was identified on the Power Point as Lt. Col. Rick Noriega) of Houston and teacher Ray McMurrey of Corpus Chriti. Two other candidates, Rhett Smith and hardy perennial Gene Kelly did not appear. The format was eight questions from the moderators (Karen Brooks of the Dallas Morning News and our own Eileen Smith), plus a ninth that the two candidates could direct toward each other.

I took notes, which serve as the basis of this report. I do not claim that they are verbatim or comprehensive, just notes.

The first question was about education. There is no point in my recounting the exact wording of the questions, since candidates have a way of giving their own answers. Noriega, as he was to do throughout the debate, relied on his legislative record, referring to his successful amendment to the appropriations bill that called for an across-the-board pay raise. He added that he had been fighting the dropout for ten years. “Mr. Cornyn does not support public school education,” he concluded. (Among the interested spectators were David Beckwith and Rob Jesmer from the Cornyn campaign.)

McMurrey said, “I have to live on a teacher’s pay raise.” Any pay raise was insufficient. It was eaten up by health insurance increases.

Noriega closed by invoking his endorsement by TSTA.

Second Question: Which one of you is the true candidate for change? McMurrey said, “II have no experience accepting money from lobbyists and Republican operatives.” This was a reference to Noriega’s contributions from, among others, Bob Perry. “You know who represents real change in this race. Who says it is only professional politicians who understand the needs of people. That’s the status quo.”

Noriega said, “It has been a privilege to serve in the Texas House. People have asked me, which is more dangerous to serve in–Afghanistan, the Texas border with the narcotraffickers, or the Texas House.” He cited some of the issues he had supported.

McMurrey countered that Noriega votes Democratic on issues, but that is not the same as being a reformer: “Noriega is not a reformer.”

By this time it was pretty clear that Noriega did not want to engage with McMurrey. As the frontrunner, he knew better than to rise to the bait. As a result, he didn’t appear to have a lot of energy. McMurrey took awhile to get comfortable, in, but once he did, he was the aggressor, the more energetic and feistier candidate.

Question 3 was about energy. McMurrey said that Congress is subsidizing oil and gas more than renewable energy. “How fast are we going to move into green energy?” And then, the jab at Noriega: We need someone who is not connected with fossil fuel energy companies”–a reference to Noriega’s former employment with Reliant/Center Point. Noriega responded that Texas ought to be the leader on green energy. McMurrey had the last word: “I respect Mr. Noriega’s background and career in Big Energy, but Reliant Energy and Center Point Energy have had enough representation in the U.S. Senate.”

Question Four: “What’s your plan for ending the war in Iraq? Two minutes.” That was the laugh line of the night. Noriega: “The first thing we’re going to do is have a new commander-in-chief. We must start moving brigades out of a civil war. McMurrey: I opposed this war as illegal and immoral preemptive war. It’s not a war, it’s an occupation. Noriega (referring to Cornyn): Too many people don’t know M16s from M&Ms.”

It was about this point in the debate that the audience began to warm to McMurrey, and his answers began to get some enthusiastic applause.

Question Five: Would you support publicly funded campaigns? Noriega: Absolutely. Look at our Supreme Court. Justice shouldn’t be for sale. McMurrey questioned whether Noriega had actually done anything about it in the Legislature; what bill had he supported. I don’t recall whether it was this question or another one, but at one point Noriega was able to cite bill numbers.

Question Six: Immigration. McMurrey favored a path to citizenship. Noriega agreed. He talked about commanding troops on the border.

Question Seven: This one was a surprise. “How would you protect the Second Amendment rights of gun owners?” McMurrey said, The Second Amendment is a fundamental part of the Bill of Rights. Noriega said he was a lifetime member of the Texas State Rifle Association. He is concerned about assault weapons, worried that police are outgunned by narcotraffickers.

Question Eight: Do you agree more with Clinton that we need universal health care or Obama that the government should compel everyone to have health insurance. Noriega: Everyone should have access to health care. The federal government should compel every American to have health insurance. McMurrey: That’s what John Cornyn says. We need a single payer system.

Then came the candidate-to-candidate questions:

McMurrey to Noriega: I’m a cancer survivor. Why don’t you support a single payer system. Will you guarantee health care for all Americans? Noriega: “You’re a great example of someone fighting for Democratic values. I supported $100 million for cancer research. I will fight for affordable health care and access to health care for every man, woman, and child.

Noriega to McMurrey: What do you see as the greatest disappointment about John Cornyn? McMurrey: His cheerleader position for the Iraq war. The Republicans have deceived the American people. I was embarrassed for my students.

In his closing statement, McMurrey said, “Reliant and Center Point are already overrepresented in the United States Senate, and working class people are underrepresented. Environmentalists are underrepresented, by people who recuse themselves from votes. I don’t know how many of you know who Ralph W. Yarborough was, a great Texas senator, he used to say, “We need to put the jam on the bottom shelf where the little people can reach it.” Noriega mentioned the groups that have endorsed him, and said that the reason was “proven and trusted leadership.”

I thought that McMurrey won the debate, because the expectations were minimal, and yet he was able to win over the audience with his feistiness and sincerity. But he won by default. Noriega knew that he had nothing to gain from the debate, and it seemed as if his game plan was just to get through the evening without commiting a gaffe or losing message discipline by explaining his relationship with Reliant and Center Point. This was an exhibition game for Noriega. He and Cornyn will play for keeps in the fall.