Ted Cruz can’t lose. Paul Sadler isn’t going to win.

And so last night’s Belo-sponsored debate between the two candidates to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the United States Senate was just another hour of TV entertainment, high on name-calling, cross-talk, and exasperation.

Brad Watson of WFAA and Gromer Jeffers Jr. of the Dallas Morning News moderated the debate, but couldn’t modulate the two participants.

The short version? Sadler called Cruz a troll, a liar, and a guy who doesn’t hunt, while Cruz, no stranger to the role of underdog/attack-dog from his primary against David Dewhurst, embraced the role reversal, evading most of Sadler’s direct questions, and punctuating his counterattacks with a tight and knowing grin, a smile that said, “I am already the next Senator from Texas.”

“It was a debate between two lawyers, and it often felt like one,” wrote Aman Batheja of the Texas Tribune. “[Cruz and Sadler] took turns treating each other like hostile witnesses…”

“Yuck. That was one ugly debate between Sadler and Cruz,” opined Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka. “There was no winner and the loser was the audience watching on TV. Moderator Brad Watson spent most of the debate trying to stop Cruz and Sadler from speaking at the same time, without much success. Sadler was unrestrained. He called Cruz a liar, repeatedly. Cruz demanded that Sadler quit talking while Cruz was trying to answer a question.”

“The pair bickered with such frequency and ferocity at the downtown studios of WFAA, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, that it was often hard to hear — let alone understand — either one of them,” reported Will Weissert of the Associated Press.

Joe Holley of the Houston Chronicle noted that between the bickering, such topics as health care reform, border and immigration issues, the Second Amendment, and government spending were all covered.

‘Cruz gave as good as he got,” wrote Chuck Lindell of the Austin American Statesman, “questioning Sadler’s support for gun rights, accusing him of supporting a Texas income tax and labeling Sadler as an ‘Obama Democrat’ who favors increased government spending and control.”

“I commend Mr. Sadler for running as an unapologetic liberal,” Cruz said.

Then, as Lindell also noted, there was a discussion inspired by the recent Mitt Romney “47 percent” video:

“I do think that part of the philosophy of President Obama and this administration is trying to get as many Americans as possible dependent on government so the Democrats can stay in power in perpetuity,” Cruz said.

“That,” Sadler responded, “is the craziest thing I have ever heard in my life. You really are accusing the president of the United States of using government programs to manipulate people to not get a job, to be dependent on government for services?”

Said Cruz: “I’m impressed that we’re a few minutes into it and you have already three times called me crazy.”

“It’s not that crazy,” was Burka’s take on that exchange. “Most historians would agree that it comes straight out of the Roosevelt/New Deal playbook.”

The debate also saw Sadler point out that Cruz’s position on immigration was different than one previously taken by his wife, former George W. Bush White House staffer Heidi Nelson Cruz. Cruz took great affront at having his spouse mentioned. 

But the biggest fireworks came with what should now forever be known as the “troll” moment, from an exchange about whether or not Sadler supported a state income tax during his time in the Texas legislature. As Tom Benning of the Dallas Morning News transcribed (emphasis ours):

SADLER: I had the responsibility of looking at the tax system of Texas, something you wouldn’t know anything about because you’ve never served in the Legislature, you’ve never had the responsibility of putting together a school finance program to pay for our children’s education, to fund education across this state. I did a review of every single tax available. … That’s our responsibility. You wouldn’t know anything about that. But what you don’t do is do your job as a legislator worried about some troll who will come along 10 years later or 20 years later and try to run a campaign against you.

CRUZ: I’m sorry you believe I’m a troll.

SADLER: When you lie over and over again, there’s nothing else to suggest.

CRUZ: I’m sorry, Mr. Sadler, you believe I’m a troll.

SADLER: I think you lie, Ted.

CRUZ: I’m sorry you attack me personally and impugn my character. I do not intend to reciprocate.

After the debate, as the AP’s Weissert reported, Sadler said, “I probably should not have used the word ‘troll,’ but it’s hard when someone keeps not telling the truth.”

But does any of it matter?

“This debate is far more important for Sadler than it is for Cruz,” Rice University professor Mark Jones told the Houston Chronicle. “[The debate] can make Sadler raise his share of the vote, but all it’s going to do is determine how many votes he loses by.”

Texas Monthly‘s Burka felt that Sadler couldn’t even really handle the first question posed to him, which was “This is an open seat. Why isn’t the Democratic party behind you?. Wrote Burka:

What was Sadler supposed to say? That there is no Democratic party in Texas, maybe? What he actually said was, ‘Republicans and independents will support me because I have a bi-partisan record.’ That’s not going to win many votes in this state.

As the Chronicle’s Holley noted, “a Texas Lyceum poll released on Tuesday found Cruz leading Sadler, 50 percent to 24 percent, with 25 percent undecided.”

Want some video? WFAA has got it: