Texas Republican David Dewhurst has been the leading candidate to replace retiring senator Kay Bailey Hutchison for the last year. Dewhurst, a wealthy Houston-born businessman who served in the Air Force and CIA, has been lieutenant governor since 2003, making him second only to governor Rick Perry in influence and name recognition among statewide Republicans.

Dewhurst’s chief primary opponent is former state solicitor general Ted Cruz. (Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, also a wealthy businessman, and former professional football player and sports announcer Craig James are also in contention, though they’ve both sat at the bottom of most polls.)

But Cruz, a darling of the conservative movement who is running to Dewhurst’s right, is rising. Cruz has consistently moved up in the polls, and a recent one from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune shows Dewhurst with only an 11-point lead over Cruz, 38 percent to 27 percent.

Dewhurst casts himself as a faithful executor of the Rick Perry agenda. “Rick Perry’s entire record is my record,” he says. “Since 2003, I have passed everything he’s signed.” Congress, he says, ought to follow the policies of low taxes, less spending, and fewer regulations that have made Texas an oasis of job creation in America’s recession-era desert. “If you factor in inflation and population growth, our budget since the first day I came in has declined, been reduced 10.7 percent, and again, we cut over $14.5 billion in taxes. I think that’s the main thing. It’s creating the business environment where, in Texas, investors and businesses know we’re not going to change the rules midstream, so they invest.”

As lieutenant governor, Dewhurst is also president of the state senate, and his reputation in Austin is that of an able operator and, for a very conservative party in a very conservative state, a moderating influence. “Dewhurst is, at heart, a moderate and a compromiser,” says one longtime Republican operative in Texas.

Dewhurst’s perceived moderate image has some conservatives in the state looking for an alternative. “We want someone who goes up there with courage,” says Cruz supporter Cathie Adams, a former state party chair and the president of Texas Eagle Forum. “We don’t want some namby-pamby who’s going to say, ‘Well, we have to replace Obamacare with something else.’”

Cruz’s own case is that Dewhurst isn’t a true, movement conservative. “This race presents a clear choice between a timid, career politician and a strong, conservative fighter,” he says. Cruz argued cases in front of the Supreme Court nine times, and authored a brief on behalf of 31 states during the Heller Second Amendment case. (Cruz, a Harvard Law graduate, also clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist.) He’s picked up endorsements from national conservative organizations and leaders like the Club for Growth, the Tea Party Express, RedState blogger Erick Erickson, radio host Mark Levin, and Senators Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Jim DeMint, whom Cruz calls the “four strongest conservatives in the U.S. Senate.”

Cruz points to Dewhurst’s support for a wage tax, which Cruz calls an income tax, and the fact that the state senate has consistently proposed larger budgets than the state house as proof that Dewhurst isn’t as conservative as he claims. “On the campaign trail, Dewhurst is happy to claim he’d support any conservative position under the sun,” Cruz says. But the record, he adds, doesn’t hold up.

Dewhurst calls charge that he isn’t conservative “nonsense,” pointing to a 10.7 percent reduction in the size of the budget and over $14 billion in tax cuts since he took office. “The only person in the state of Texas that I know of that doesn’t believe that I’m one of the, if not the most, fiscally conservative officials in any state in the entire country might happen to be one trial lawyer who is desperate to say whatever he has to win,” he says, careful to not mention his opponent by name.

So does Cruz have a chance? Despite his lead in the polls, Dewhurst can’t win the May 28 primary outright without getting at least 50 percent of the vote. If he can push Dewhurst to a runoff in June, observers think Cruz has a shot to win the nomination and with it, the Senate seat. (The Democrats haven’t won a race for U.S. Senate since Lloyd Bentsen won reelection in 1988.) Cruz thinks he can win the nomination the first time around. “Based on our fundraising, by Election Day, my name ID will be 80 percent,” he says. “And if we’re able to double my name ID and we see similar support among primary voters, that puts us in a position to win outright.”

Some political observers in Texas see the 41-year-old Cruz, who is in his first race for elected office, as a poor campaigner who might have a better shot at the Senate after running and winning a down-ticket seat.

But others think 2012 is Cruz’s moment. “I think it was his time to run, but it also speaks to his courage,” says Adams.

Cruz is confident he can overcome the better-financed Dewhurst campaign by way of his growing grassroots network and conservative message.

“If I’m elected, there will not be a single U.S. Senator, bar none, who is a more relentless, a more strategic, and, I hope, a more effective advocate of dramatically shrinking the size, power, and spending of the federal government,” he says. “And I intend to be that one.”

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