AUSTIN, Texas — Tea party superstars from across the country are converging on Texas in hopes of helping grassroots darling and U.S. Senate hopeful Ted Cruz pull off an upset that had long seemed unthinkable against the mainstream Republican choice Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint are headlining a get-out-the-vote rally Friday night in suburban Houston. That will come a day after fellow tea party favorites, U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Utah's Mike Lee, appear at a basketball arena in Dallas on Cruz's behalf. Paul and Lee will be joined by radio host Glenn Beck and former Texas Rep. Dick Armey, who's now chairman of the conservative organization FreedomWorks.
Cruz, who's Cuban-American and the former Texas solicitor general, is locked in a fierce battle with Dewhurst for the Republican nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Dewhurst has overseen the state Senate from the powerful lieutenant governor's post since 2003.
Dewhurst won the May 29 Texas primary by 10 percentage points but fell short of an outright majority in a nine-candidate GOP field. He and Cruz square off Tuesday in a runoff, with the winner seen as the overwhelming favorite to win November's general election.
While he has overseen decidedly conservative Legislatures, Dewhurst has also been unapologetic about occasionally compromising with Democratic lawmakers to ensure key legislation is passed. That has made him a tea party target.
In Dewhurst's corner is Gov. Rick Perry, a former GOP presidential candidate who remains popular with conservatives back home. Many Republican state lawmakers also support him, but it may not be enough to mobilize voters during the summer doldrums – when Cruz supporters have promised to turn out in droves but many other Texans could be more worried about staying cool than casting ballots.
Cruz spokesman James Bernsen said he wouldn't characterize the back-to-back rallies as the tea party cavalry riding to Cruz's rescue since Palin had previously recorded a phone message to voters on Cruz's behalf. Paul also spoke at a May rally with Cruz in Austin, and FreedomWorks has spent months mobilizing Cruz volunteers.
"For a long time, people have been watching this race around the country and realizing this is the most important test for the tea party in America," Bernsen said. "This is ground zero for the debate between whether we're going to have a tea party candidate or an establishment, moderate candidate."
Some polls have given Cruz a slight advantage in the runoff due to his high favorability with those who identify as likely voters. He also has slightly outraised Dewhurst in recent weeks. Dewhurst, who owns an energy firm, has lent his campaign more than $10 million. But Cruz has gotten millions from DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, as well as the anti-tax Club for Growth based in Washington.
In an interview Wednesday as he traveled to a campaign stop in McAllen along the U.S.-Mexico border, Dewhurst said Cruz was "beholden to" outside groups that have given him so much money, adding, "That, to me, is of concern for Texans."
"I'm not at all surprised that Mr. Cruz has support from different people around the country. I've never gone to any of these people and asked them for their support," Dewhurst told The Associated Press. "I've been focused on Texans. My focus is Texas, not Washington and all of these people from other states that Mr. Cruz seems to want or need to come in and embrace him."
It's a contrast Dewhurst has tried to hammer home in recent weeks, flooding the airwaves with advertising. In a new television commercial dubbed "Texas vs. Washington" and unveiled Wednesday, the lieutenant governor touts his business experience and his overseeing of tax and spending cuts in the Texas Legislature – while dismissing Cruz as a "lawyer trained in Washington."
In the interview, Dewhurst also fired back specifically at DeMint, Paul and Lee, as well as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has previously endorsed Cruz.
"These are senators from South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah and Kentucky. With all due respect, they are from states that don't have anywhere near the economy, state government and success that we have in Texas," he said. "And he's aligning himself with them over the work we've done here."