AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The question for voters in Tuesday's Texas runoff isn't whether a Republican will likely succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate, but what kind of Republican? The answer figures to reverberate far beyond the Lone Star State.
In an election representing one of the nation's most vivid contrasts between the GOP establishment and the tea party, longtime Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst faces a major threat from former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.
The candidates have few political or even ideological disagreements, but their race has turned increasingly nasty and expensive as they each claim to represent true conservative values while accusing each other of lying.
While Cruz prevented Dewhurst from getting the majority needed to avoid a runoff during the May 29 state primary, the lieutenant governor enjoyed a comfortable margin in a nine-candidate primary two months ago and it appeared he would coast to victory.
Now the battle has come down to the wire.
The race is being watched nationally as a test for the tea party against well-entrenched Texas Republicans unaccustomed to losing. Texas hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.
While Democrats also are squaring off in a Tuesday runoff, the GOP nominee figures to be the overwhelming favorite in November to replace Hutchison, who is retiring.
Since the May election — delayed from Super Tuesday due to a legal battle over redistricting maps drawn by the GOP-dominated state Legislature — Cruz's insurgent candidacy has been buoyed by money and influence from conservative groups in and outside of Texas.
Both camps pinned their hopes on getting people to the polls Tuesday.
At a morning campaign stop in Houston, Cruz again emphasized the need for "conservatives" to vote, telling them not only to cast their own ballot, but to bring 10 friends with them.
"We are here today because of grass-roots conservatives all over the place," Cruz told about two dozen supporters who stood outside a polling place in one of Houston's most upscale neighborhoods.
Cruz said he heard from voters statewide interested in changing what they view as insider-politics in Washington.
"That's the way the democratic process is supposed to work. It's not supposed to be a bunch of guys in a smoky room in Austin picking the next Senator," Cruz added.
Just blocks away a few hours later, Dewhurst also pleaded with Texans to vote.
"This is a tough race, but if we remind voters I'm the only true conservative in the race," we can win, Dewhurst said, promising to "turn Washington upside down" if elected.
"If we don't change the way Washington operates we're going to bankrupt our children and grandchildren," he told a crowd of supporters outside a popular Houston deli, Kenny and Ziggy's.
Inside, one patron handed Dewhurst his bill, apparently hoping the candidate would pay it. The lieutenant governor smiled and handed it back, saying he couldn't help with that but could assist as senator with other things, such as creating a friendly business environment.
Early voting ended Friday, and about 3.3 percent of registered Republicans cast ballots — a stronger turnout than expected, especially for a runoff coming so deep into summer doldrums.
Natache Reeves, a 42-year-old nurse from the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Grapevine, said she voted for Cruz because he had former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's support and was less likely to restrict handgun use.
"I love Sarah Palin, and she's backing Ted Cruz," Reeves said. "I pretty much agree with everything that rolls out of her mouth."
Frank Martinez of Dallas said despite finding Dewhurst's campaign ads "very mean" he couldn't support Cruz, even though they share Cuban roots.
"I think (Dewhurst) has more experience, and he's not a lawyer. So the ad worked," said Martinez, 54, who is unemployed after a workplace accident two years ago left him disabled.
Cruz's recent success is drawing comparisons to Indiana, where state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. But in Texas, the nation's second-most populous state, a win by a tea party-backed candidate likely would resonate even more.
Dewhurst has overseen the Texas Senate from the powerful lieutenant governor's post since 2003 and has been endorsed by popular Gov. Rick Perry and much of the state's Republican establishment.
Cruz is the son of a Cuban immigrant who has a fiery public speaking style that has stirred up grass-roots groups. Cruz describes himself as the race's only true fighter for conservative values.
During a Monday appearance in San Antonio at one of the oldest Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in the country, Dewhurst supporter and retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot Jake Ellzey said: "Mr. Cruz, you're not a fighter because you've never worn the uniform."
Asked if that was a fair assessment, Dewhurst said, "I agree with the commander."
"Normally, I've found in my life that the louder you speak, probably, the less of a fighter you are," he continued.
Cruz campaign spokesman James Bernsen shot back that making military service a "litmus test" was offensive.
"Ted is very supportive of the military," Bernsen said. "But this is not something that should be politicized, period."
Associated Press writers Danny Robbins in Grapevine, Sarah Kuta in Dallas and Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this report.