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Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke take plenty of shots in first debate

September 22, 2018

DALLAS — Democrat Beto O’Rourke has stressed that he is not running against any person or party, but during his first debate with Sen. Ted Cruz, the El Paso Congressman got aggressive, painting Cruz as hyper-partisan and forcefully going after Cruz’s spotty attendance record in the Senate.

“In 2016, he missed one-half of the votes in the United States Senate,” O’Rourke, 45, said. “Could you tell me who can miss half the days at work and then be re-hired for the same job going forward?”

Cruz, a 47-year-old former college debate champion who has been in 20 national debates, was quick to respond.

“Congressman O’Rourke doesn’t seem to understand that representing Texas is not doing a photo op in each county in Texas with reporters in tow,” Cruz said. “But it’s actually standing up and fighting for the people of Texas. And I can tell you in the 6 years I’ve represented Texas, I have been there on the ground.”

During the chemical explosion in West, the mass shootings at Sante Fe High School and a church in Sutherland Springs, and after Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston, Cruz said he’s been on the ground early, doing his job.

For 60 minutes, the two candidates traded blows on issues including immigration, gun control and whether NFL players should stand for the national anthem.

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The debate comes at a time where the race between the two appears to be tightening. A half dozen polls released over the last month all show the race in the single digits, though most show Cruz with a lead. Just Friday, the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. declared the race a toss-up, a designation no Texas Senate race has seen in four decades.

Texas has not had a U.S. Senate race decided by less than 5 percentage points since 1978 when Sen. John Tower, a Republican, beat then-Democratic Congressman Robert Krueger by less than 1 percent of the vote.

The first question Friday night drew out the stark differences between the candidates on how they think the government should handle people who were brought into the country illegally as young children and are in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly referred to as Dreamers.

“Senator Cruz has promised to deport each and every single Dreamer,” O’Rourke said. “That cannot be the way that Texas leads on this issue.”

Cruz responded by pointing to the divide between himself and O’Rourke on immigration.

“My views on immigration are simple, and I’ve summed them up many times in just four words,” Cruz. “Legal: Good. Illegal: Bad. I think the vast majority of Texans agree with that.”

Cruz invoked his father who is originally from Cuba as proof of how the system should work.

“There is a right way to come into this country,” Cruz said. “You wait in line, you follow the rules like my father did in 1957.”

O’Rourke retorted: “The alternative, as Sen. Cruz has proposed, is to deport 11 million people from this country. Imagine the cost. Imagine the stain on our conscience going forward.”

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On gun control, both men brought up the violence at Santa Fe High School. While Cruz said part of the answer is more law enforcement in schools, O’Rourke called for limiting access to “weapons of war” and said more guns in schools is not the answer.

“Thoughts and prayers, Sen. Cruz, are just not gonna cut it anymore,” O’Rourke said. “Texans deserve action.”

Cruz took it as a moment to stress his faith.

“More armed police officers in our schools is not just thoughts and prayers,” he said. “And I’m sorry if you don’t like thoughts and prayers. I will pray for anyone in harm’s way. But I’ll also do something about it.”

One of the testiest exchanges came when the rivals took up criminal justice reform and the protests by professional athletes during the national anthem.

Cruz accused O’Rourke of disrespecting law enforcement by equating them to the “modern day Jim Crow.” O’Rourke said Cruz was misrepresenting his statement. O’Rourke had called the criminal justice system the modern day Jim Crow because people who are black are disproportionally behind bars.

Cruz said, “that rhetoric divides us on race” and added that “turning people against the police, I think, is profoundly irresponsible.”

O’Rourke accused Cruz of “slander and misrepresentation,” and stared at Cruz as he continued: “This is your trick of the trade, to confuse and to incite based on fear and not to speak the truth.”

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A short time later, Cruz went after O’Rourke’s past statements about nothing being more American than peaceful protests like NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest the killings of unarmed black men by police.

“Everyone has a right to protest,” Cruz said. “But you can speak in a way that doesn’t disrespect the flag, that doesn’t disrespect the national anthem.”

But when Cruz pushed it further to suggest O’Rourke encourages flag burning, O’Rourke pushed back, saying no one is suggesting burning the flag is the right thing to do.

Even when they were trying to be nice to one another, Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke couldn’t quite pull it off.

Asked to say something positive about O’Rourke toward the end of the debate, Cruz acknowledged his El Paso rival’s energy but also added a jab.

“I think O’Rourke is passionate and he believes in what he’s fighting for — like Bernie Sanders,” Cruz said from the McFarlin Auditorium at Southern Methodist University. “I think you are absolutely sincere, like Bernie, that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes, and I commend you for fighting ... for the principles you believe in.”

O’Rourke quipped: “True to form.”

Friday’s debate is the first of three debates Cruz and O’Rourke have agreed to. They meet again on Sunday at the University of Houston. The final debate will be in San Antonio on Oct. 16 at a yet-to-be announced location.

jeremy.wallace@chron.com

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