AUSTIN, Texas — As tea party superstars smelling an upset close ranks around conservative insurgent candidate Ted Cruz, traditional Republican favorite David Dewhurst is leaning on his party's old guard.
The Texas lieutenant governor is hoping to regain the air of inevitability that once made him look like a slam-dunk in the race for U.S. Senate.
Dewhurst racked up another key endorsement on Thursday, appearing at a running-shoe shop in Austin with Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, who said the state has $6.1 billion saved in its rainy day fund because Dewhurst kept state lawmakers from raiding it.
"David Dewhurst, in the Senate, held the line in keeping that money set aside for the future," Combs said.
Cruz and Dewhurst square off Tuesday in a runoff election, with the winner considered the overwhelming favorite to prevail in November's general election.
Dewhurst has overseen the state Senate since 2003 from the powerful lieutenant governor's post. He has been endorsed by Gov. Rick Perry and most of the Texas GOP establishment in the race for the Republican nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
He beat Cruz by 10 percentage points in the May 29 state primary but fell short of an outright majority in a field featuring nine Republican senate hopefuls.
Combs' nod came as state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, also endorsed Dewhurst. Patrick is a tea party favorite himself and has clashed frequently with the lieutenant governor, but he also got into a high-profile yelling match with Cruz during a recent radio interview. The race has become one of the nation's most-watched – seen as a test of the tea party's grassroots prowess against mainstream Republicans in Texas who don't lose many elections: a Democrat has not won statewide office here since 1994.
But this time the challenge is coming from the far-right, and coming hard. Cruz was in Dallas on Thursday for a major tea party rally featuring U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as radio host Glenn Beck and former U.S. Rep. from Texas, Dick Armey – chairman of the grassroots group FreedomWorks.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party Express parked a bus doubling as a "mobile phone bank" in the Dallas suburb of Irving to get out the vote for Cruz.
Another major Cruz bash Friday in Houston was expected to feature former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She had previously recorded a phone message to voters for Cruz but had not traveled to Texas on his behalf.
Cruz, the former state solicitor general, strikes a fiery, populist tone. The tea party also has targeted Dewhurst because, while he has overseen some of the most conservative legislatures in Texas history, he has also occasionally compromised with Democrats to approve key legislation.
Dewhurst also has a halting, at times uneasy speaking style. But he says he never reached out to national tea party leaders because he's been too focused on Texas issues.
"I'm comfortable that there are more Dewhurst voters in Texas than Cruz voters," Dewhurst said Thursday. "The challenge to both of us is turnout."
A court battle over redistricting maps pushed the Texas primary from Super Tuesday to May 29, which means the runoff is coming when many Texans may be on vacation. About 1.4 million people voted in the primary, but fewer than 1 million are likely to return for a second round of balloting.
Cruz has gotten millions of dollars from national conservative groups, including the Washington-based Club for Growth. Dewhurst, who has a personal fortune topping $200 million as the owner of an energy business, has lent his campaign more than $10 million. Both sides have flooded the airwaves statewide, with Dewhurst attacking Cruz as beholden to his out-of-state benefactors and Cruz branding the lieutenant governor as a two-faced moderate.
Cruz has vowed to win the runoff, saying his supporters are motivated enough to turn out no matter what.
"We're seeing very strong enthusiasm among our base. Not only voters, but volunteers who are block-walking, phone-banking and pouring their blood, sweat and tears into this campaign," said James Bernsen, a spokesman for the Cruz campaign.
Dewhurst is countering by campaigning with Perry the day before the election, visiting a San Antonio veterans center before heading to a joint fundraiser in Dallas.
But the lieutenant governor is also quietly mobilizing his own supporters. He's using networks of volunteers organized by groups across the state that have endorsed him, including the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Farm Bureau, which is especially strong in rural areas – where Dewhurst largely beat Cruz handily during the primary.
Also Monday, Dewhurst will make his first visit to his campaign's major phone-banking operation in Dallas to fire-up his hardcore supporters. Perry will also be there as will the Republican third- and fourth-place finishers in the primary, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and ex-NFL running back and ESPN commentator Craig James – both of whom have since endorsed the lieutenant governor.
"They're not just endorsing us and `see you later,'" said Dewhurst spokesman Matt Hirsch. "They're out there campaigning for us."