After months of back and forth, the Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke Senate campaigns agreed Friday to hold three hourlong debates in front of live audiences — at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on Sept. 21, the University of Houston on Sept. 30 and in a San Antonio television studio to be named later on Oct. 16.
The first two debates will be on domestic policy, and the third will be divided between domestic and foreign policy.
The Dallas and San Antonio events will be moderated, with the candidates at podiums and an audience of 240 in Dallas and 120 in San Antonio. The Houston event will be town hall-style, with an audience of 250 or more and the candidates sitting on stools.
The three debates promise to further raise the profile of what appears to be a surprisingly competitive race — albeit one that is still Cruz’s to lose — that tops the ballot in Texas. The contest already has drawn more national media attention than any other Senate race this year because of the enormous stakes and the very different political personalities of the two candidates.
The only other statewide debate scheduled in Texas is between Gov. Greg Abbott and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, in Austin on Sept. 28. The other Republican statewide elected officials have all ignored calls from their Democratic rivals for debates.
Neither Cruz, a one-term Republican incumbent senator, nor O’Rourke, a three-term Democratic congressman from El Paso, got everything they wanted in the debates.
In April, O’Rourke challenged Cruz to six debates, with two in Spanish. He is fluent in Spanish. Cruz is not.
In July, Cruz offered to debate O’Rourke five times on different topics in different parts of Texas on five Friday nights between Aug. 31 and Oct. 12, with all the debates in English.
The first debate would have been in Dallas. The second would have been Friday in McAllen, with another to follow next Friday in San Antonio, and the last two in Houston, on Oct. 5, and Lubbock on Oct. 12.
The O’Rourke campaign, which relented on a Spanish-language debate, wanted all debates to take place in October, and at least three of the five meetings to occur on a Sunday or a weeknight other than Friday — the key night for high school football games — with a sixth debate in El Paso.
Now, the first debate will be on a Friday, but the second will be on Sunday and the third on a Tuesday.
Cruz is probably the most seasoned debater in American political life, from his days as a championship debater at Princeton University to his participation in the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, with its dozen debates and nine forums, to his nationally televised debates on taxes and health care with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate.
University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said Cruz’s job is to rev up the GOP base and try to deliver a knockout punch revealing O’Rourke as a liberal out of touch with Texas values. The debate schedule gives O’Rourke, who has a more conversational style, a better chance to rebound if he gets hit hard in the first debate. It also, Rottinghaus said, gives O’Rourke more time to work his ingratiating personality on Texas voters.
The other danger for Cruz, Rottinghaus said, is that events in Washington and especially in a White House to which Cruz is now allied, are so volatile that Cruz could find himself having to defend shifting terrain from one debate to the next.
Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M University historian of American political rhetoric, said the contrast between Cruz’s rhetorical rigor and O’Rourke’s “earnestness,” will make for good viewing.
If the prospect of five or six debates had brought to mind the most famous series of American political debates of all time — the seven Lincoln-Douglas Senate debates in 1858 — even three debates between two such talented candidates this year is likely to capture the national imagination, Mercieca said.
But in Texas, she said, the debates are less about persuasion than rallying each candidate’s voters to turn out.
“Are there really any undecided voters in Texas?” Mercieca asked.