Jabs and counter punches: evaluating the Cruz vs O’Rourke debate

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The main event of the week in Texas politics happened Friday night in Dallas.  Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke faced off in their first debate in the race for the Senate.

The first meeting between the two candidates produced several tense exchanges. Cruz went on the attack early. He accused O’Rourke of making divisive comments about law enforcement, claiming O’Rourke called police officers “modern day Jim Crow.”  

“Turning people against the police, I think is profoundly irresponsible,” Cruz said over cheers from some of the debate audience.

O’Rourke called the charge “slander and mischaracterization.”

“This is your trick of the trade, to confuse and incite on fear and not to speak the truth,” O’Rourke said as he looked directly at Cruz.

“Cruz needed to blunt O’Rourke’s momentum,” said Bob Garrett, Austin Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News. Recent polls show a single digit margin between the two candidates, which is rare for statewide elections in Texas. “We knew he was going to be on the attack. And he was,” Garrett added.

Toward the end of the debate, moderators asked each candidate to talk about what they admire about their opponent. O’Rourke thanked Cruz for his public service. “I know what a sacrifice that is for his family,” O’Rourke said, acknowledging that work often keeps the Senator away from his family. “I know that he’s doing it for one reason: he wants to serve his country,”  O’Rourke said.

Cruz used his answer to work in a thinly-veiled jab at his opponent.  He called O’Rourke passionate and sincere in his beliefs, then said that reminded him of Bernie Sanders. “I think you are absolutely sincere, like Bernie, that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes,” Cruz said.

“True to form,” O’Rourke said after Cruz’s response.

“O’Rourke had a more difficult, challenging job,” Garrett said. “His whole brand has been sort of this uplifting, optimistic persona. But he knew that he couldn’t just let Ted Cruz punch him for 60 minutes, so he was having to be feisty and counterpunch.”

The campaign will likely stay feisty. Despite rejecting corporate and PAC money, O’Rourke is still seeing millions of dollars in donations to help in this tight race.

“Nothing like this has happened in Texas in a long time,” Garrett said. “Cruz is going to unleash everything and O’Rourke is going to have to really fight back.”

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