Ted Cruz, Beto O'Rourke

Cruz: Brian Kanof/The El Paso Times via AP; O'Rourke: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Cruz, O'Rourke To Face Off In Last Texas Senate Debate

October 16, 2018 - 5:02 pm

HOUSTON (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, were set to square off Tuesday in one of the most anticipated debates before the midterm elections next month.

The Tuesday night debate is the last between the candidates, and from national polls to divided households in conservative suburbs, the indications are of a close race with just three weeks until Election Day. The campaign itself has also gotten contentious.

“It’s starting to get a lot nastier,” said Houston Chronicle Political Reporter Jeremy Wallace. “As we get closer and closer to Election Day, these guys are trading blows all around the state right now.”

But what hasn't been seen so far are major missteps or race-altering moments.

Neither side is betting on one down the stretch. For O'Rourke, who last week announced a record-shattering fundraising haul of $38 million from supporters nationwide, the debate in San Antonio presents his last best chance to give Cruz supporters any misgivings. The El Paso congressman has run against politics as usual and campaign mudslinging, but O'Rourke is also sharpening his tone amid new polls that suggest his rise may be hitting a ceiling for a Democrat in Texas.

Cruz, meanwhile, is out to not squander the built-in advantages of running in a deeply Republican state that hasn't elected a Democrat to a statewide office in 24 years. He is set to get another boost on Monday when President Donald Trump comes to Texas for a rally at an 8,000-seat convention hall in Houston.

And even Democrats are doubtful that Cruz — as unflappable a campaigner as anyone in the Senate — will make any disastrous late stumbles that would cause voters to peel off.

"Ted Cruz isn't going to be a Mourdock or an Akin," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster based in Alabama.

He was referring to Missouri Republican Todd Akin, whose 2012 Senate campaign imploded after he said women's bodies could stop unwanted pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape," and Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who that same year said pregnancies resulting from rape were God's intent. Both went on to lose races that were within their reach.

Continued Anzalone: "Is there always an 'X' variable you hope for at the end? Absolutely. But I'm not ready to say that's what is needed for an O'Rourke victory."

Since launching his longshot bid last year, O'Rourke has insisted that what his campaign didn't need were attack ads or money from political action committees. Up until now he had rarely even mentioned Cruz's name during his packed and lively rallies.

But that has started changing with time running out and new polls showing O'Rourke within single digits but still trailing in Texas, which President Donald Trump won by 9 points in 2016. While campaigning along the Texas-Mexico border last weekend, O'Rourke called Cruz reckless for helping instigate a 2013 government shutdown and accused him of undermining public schools.

"He put your lives and your communities on hold for his presidential ambition," O'Rourke told an audience in McAllen, Texas.

Cruz, on the other hand, has hammered O'Rourke for months and made little appeal beyond his conservative base during their first debate in September. Hours after O'Rourke on Friday announced his blockbuster fundraising numbers that tripled what Cruz raised, Cruz chalked it up to anger on the left and continued casting O'Rourke as too liberal for Texas.

"Typically, in a general election, Democrats in Texas at least pretend to go to the middle. They pretend to be moderate. That's not what Congressman O'Rourke is doing. He's going hard, hard left," Cruz said.

He was at a honky-tonk in Houston, where pairs of cowboy boots dangle from the ceiling and mingling underneath were Cruz supporters, whose own families illustrated O'Rourke's surprising inroads in unexpected places. Angie White, 57, said her daughter has gone to O'Rourke events but that, like many young people, "I feel like she's not going to go vote." Next to her was Carolyn Knight, 65, who joked about wanting her grandkids to stay home on Election Day.

Houston is one of Texas' most liberal cities, but Democrats haven't carried surrounding Harris County in a midterm election in a quarter-century.

"We also live in a very red state," said Lillie Schechter, chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party. "Obama lost it by 1.2 million votes. Hillary lost it by 600,000. We've been cutting our margins, but it's a really heavy lift."

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump endorsed Cruz – his onetime opponent in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, and took to Twitter promising to hold a major rally for Cruz.

"Before [Cruz> ran for president, he campaigned and created an image in Texas of being a conservative fighter who never backs down. And then he had this presidential race with Donald Trump where Trump insulted his family and Cruz said he wasn't going to endorse Trump and then he changed his mind and did, and so it kind of undermined his image in Texas," said Aman Batheja, political editor for The Texas Tribune.

Coming to Texas for a rally will galvanize the Republican base, but Batheja said it will also remind voters about their "awkward history."

Wallace said O’Rourke needs a big showing in the debate Tuesday night.

“His appeal; his ability to use these big town halls to kind of have this happy warrior feel to him hasn’t translated yet onto the debate stage, and tonight, you know, you’re going to have to see this guy, you know, transform himself into a debate format against a guy who really is a masterful debater. Ted Cruz is a former college debate champion, and of course, we know from 2016, he went toe-to-toe with Donald Trump 20 different times, and so a lot of pressure on Beto tonight to prove that he can do this,” Wallace said.

If O'Rourke wins, it would be the first time Texas have elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.

The debate between O'Rourke and Cruz Tuesday starts at 8 p.m. Central Time (9 p.m. Eastern) and a live stream will be simulcast on CBSN, the 24-hour digital streaming news service from CBS News. CBSN coverage begins around 7:45 p.m. Central/ 8:45 p.m. Eastern.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)