The four major Republican candidates with their eye on Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate seat will meet Friday evening in Dallas for a televised debate.

The evening could be a testy one, after former ESPN football analyst Craig James accused Ted Cruz of trying to rig the debate. James sent out a release that contained a screenshot of his iPhone showing a message from Cruz, which read, “Craig–hope you’re well. See you Friday. For what it’s worth, since you’re asking me a Q, it might be worth asking me something about Dew skipping 31 debates (or something else related to his record). Just an idea… Ted.”

Craig slammed Cruz’s move in a statement, calling it “an attempt to rig the system:”

Today I was put in an awkward position by Ted Cruz, a man I’ve come to know and respect. Ted sent me a text suggesting I ask him a set-up question for Friday’s United States Senate debate. … This has challenged me to see if I’ll be a man of my word. I’ve campaigned that I’m going to stand for right and this is simply not right. I leave it now to the press and the public to decide whether this kind of politics is acceptable in 2012 Texas. I hope not.
Ted Cruz’s campaign has not denied he sent the text, and a spokesman called the incident a “nonstory,” according to the Texas Tribune‘s Aman Batheja.

“Newsflash! Ted has consistently and publicly denounced David Dewhurst’s record of ducking 30 plus debates across Texas and the suggestion by Ted that another candidate join in shining light on Dewhurst’s record of hiding from Texas voters should come as no surprise to anyone,” Cruz spokesman James Bernsen said.

As the primary date draws closer, it appears Dewhurst might have more competition than he expected. While the lite guv raised $1.66 million in the first quarter, Cruz brought in an impressive $1.31 million, the Houston Chronicle‘s Joe Holley reported. Recent polls give Dewhurst 38 percent of the vote, but support for Cruz, who is now polling at 27 percent, has been steadily gaining. (Both James and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert trail behind in the single digits.) 

Austin American-Statesman‘s Kate Alexander noted that the race has yet to pique the interest of voters: “A Friday night debate will probably not break any viewership records. But it will garner statewide media coverage that will provide a ‘lightning strike to alert voters that there is a Senate primary,’ said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor,” Alexander wrote. 

This will be the first debate since January for Dewhurst, the presumed frontrunner. The other candidates have slammed him for his absence at previous debates. “For Dewhurst, the aim will be to show that his front-runner status stems from something other than inertia and money,” Alexander wrote.

Here are Alexander’s predictions on how the other candidates will conduct themselves at tonight’s debate:

Cruz, still working to build his name among voters, will probably come out swinging at Dewhurst to make a strong first impression.

Leppert is focused on distinguishing himself as the serious businessman in the race.

And James has proved to be an engaging presence among the four but has not demonstrated a command of the issues.