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Biggest Question in Texas: Can David Dewhurst Avoid a Runoff?

Will Weissert/Associated Press
Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz (above) is in a fierce battle against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican Senate primary today.

Also running in today’s primary is Craig James, a former ESPN analyst who played college football for Southern Methodist University while the school was still an NCAA football powerhouse. James also won a state championship playing high school football in suburban Houston. The first-time candidate’s existing notoriety does not appear to have translated into wide support. James’ role in the 2009 firing of Mike Leach as Texas Tech University football coach could have damaged his prospects.

The GOP nominee is considered a shoo-in to succeed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who decided to retire after losing the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary to Gov. Rick Perry. In that contest, Perry assumed the role of tea party insurgent and was successful at painting Hutchison as an establishment Washington insider.

The conservative-activist establishment in Washington, D.C., eyeing an opportunity to bolster the ranks of tea-party-friendly Senators, has invested heavily in this primary in both cash and reputation and has much riding on the outcome. Republicans in Texas have long considered Dewhurst a stalwart conservative. He has the strong support of several Texas-based conservative groups, not to mention Perry.

But tea party activists who see Cruz as in the mold of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — both are ethnic Cubans — have targeted the lieutenant governor for being too cozy with the GOP establishment. The former solicitor general’s backers include the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Palin and Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.). Though Cruz has struggled at times, his supporters are optimistic about his chances in a runoff.

If Cruz faces Dewhurst in the runoff, his backers argue it would shape up as a repeat of the 2010 gubernatorial primary. It’s “Kay versus Rick all over again,” one source said.

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