AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Democrat Paul Sadler is hoping to use Tuesday night's debate to convince Texas voters that Republican Ted Cruz isn't a shoo-in to win the U.S. Senate race.
Sadler insists his tea party-backed opponent is too extreme for moderates and that if he can prove that Tuesday, it'll help rejuvenate his seemingly longshot campaign in the deeply conservative state.
Sadler plans to press Cruz on his support for building a fence stretching the length of Texas' border with Mexico and his unwillingness "to protect Social Security and Medicare."
He also says that even fiercely conservative Texas doesn't support Cruz's calls to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, because it could hurt the state's students and schools, or to wipe out all of the White House-backed health care law since so many Texans don't have health insurance.
"His views, they are about as extreme as it gets," Sadler said by phone Monday.
Cruz has refused to respond to Sadler's charges. The debate "is another opportunity to champion the voices of thousands of Texans who want Washington to stop spending money we don't have and get off the backs of small business owners," said Cruz spokesman Sean Rushton.
A former Ivy League debating champion, Cruz argued cases on behalf of Texas as the state's longest-serving solicitor general from 2003 until 2008.
Though he is known for his fiery oratory, Cruz's lead might be large enough that he doesn't have to engage much with Sadler during the debate, hosted by WFAA in Dallas. It's the first of two scheduled debates.
Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas, said Sadler has had difficulty raising money. He said a strong debate performance by Sadler could spur donations — but it's in Cruz's interest to keep ducking his opponent's attacks so as not make too many waves before next month's election.
"Sadler has to throw some long passes here to see what he can stir up," Buchanan said.
Sadler was a state representative from 1991 until 2003. He helped bolster local authority for school districts but also backed increasing teacher salaries while reducing property taxes.
Cruz himself was once a major underdog but embraced an anti-establishment mantra and became a tea party and conservative grassroots darling to prevail in the Republican senatorial primary against longtime Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Cruz's unlikely victory landed him a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.
He has since appeared at fundraisers with traditional Texas GOP stalwarts, including the woman he wants to succeed, retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Dewhurst even attended a Cruz fundraiser in Houston last week, and the lieutenant governor's highest-profile backer during the primary campaign, Gov. Rick Perry, plans to appear at a Cruz event Thursday in Austin.
It may look to some like he's mending fences with the mainstream party. But Rushton noted that Cruz is running the same campaign he has since the beginning, saying his candidate "continues meeting daily with Texans who understand that politicians from both parties have let us down."