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U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, in the middle of an intense media scrum after his U.S. Senate debate with Sen. Ted CruzEXPAND
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, in the middle of an intense media scrum after his U.S. Senate debate with Sen. Ted Cruz
Stephen Young

Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke Engage in Entertaining Debate Scrap at SMU

To paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke are who we thought they were. That was the biggest takeaway from the Senate candidates' debate showdown at SMU on Friday night.

Cruz displayed his patented blend of know-it-all smarminess, along with his deep understanding of what makes Texas Republican voters head out to the polls. O'Rourke was mostly charming, getting in the best jab of the night by far, but also quick to rise to Cruz's bait, providing essential fodder for the incumbent, who painted the challenger as deeply out of step with the state he wants to represent.

The incumbent just came off as deeply unlikable.

The moment for which Friday night's debate will be remembered came during what should've been a harmless exchange. Just before the end of the 60-minute showdown, KXAS reporter Julie Fine, who moderated the debate along with The Dallas Morning News' Gromer Jeffers, asked the candidates to say something they admired about their opponent.

O'Rourke gave a standard, if bloodless, response, praising Cruz for serving in elected office while raising young kids and wanting to do what's best for America.

Cruz started off on a similar tack, talking about the difficulties of campaigning with children, before veering off into calling O'Rourke a socialist.

"I think Congressman O'Rourke is passionate, energetic. He believes in what he is fighting for. Last year, I did three debates with Bernie Sanders. ... Bernie Sanders believes in what he is fighting for. He believes in socialism," Cruz said. "I think what he is fighting for doesn't work, but I think you are absolutely sincere like Bernie, you believe in expanding government and higher taxes. I commend you for fighting for what you believe. We disagree on the outcome, but you are fighting for the principles you believe in, and I respect that."

Before the moderators could ask Cruz and O'Rourke for their final statements, O'Rourke slipped in a left hook to Cruz's ribs.

"True to form," O'Rourke said, setting off a wave of laughter in the auditorium and a nationwide trending topic on Twitter.

Prior to O'Rourke's potent retort, it's hard to imagine anyone who's been paying any attention would've learned anything new about where the candidates stand on the issues.

O'Rourke supports a path to legalization for all undocumented residents of the United States. Cruz opposes granting legal status or citizenship to anyone who arrived in the country illegally, even the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Cruz favors drug prohibition — although he does believe states should be able to write their own marijuana laws. O'Rourke thinks marijuana, especially medical marijuana, should be legal. O'Rourke wants to reform the Affordable Care Act so that it covers more Americans while continuing to protect those with pre-existing conditions. Cruz wants to scrap the law entirely.

The debate brought the divide between the Texas that supports Cruz — the older, whiter, more rural part of the state — into stark relief with the younger, urban, browner one that supports O'Rourke.

The split between the candidates, and between their bases, was especially apparent during an exchange over police violence.

After being asked about why he'd criticized O'Rourke for saying that Amber Guyger, the Dallas Police Department officer who shot and killed Botham Jean in his apartment two weeks ago, should be fired, Cruz accused the congressman of being anti-police.

"We have a criminal justice system, a system that will determine what happened that night. If she violated the law and did that intentionally, she'll face the consequences," Cruz said. "Congressman O'Rourke is ready to convict her. Ready to fire her. It's a troubling pattern. Over and over again Congressman O'Rourke, when faced with an issue about police and law enforcement, he sides against the police."

While he respects cops, O'Rourke responded, something has to be done about the racial disparities that exist in the criminal justice system.

"We’ve got to do something better than what we've been doing so far. African Americans represent 13 percent of the population in this country," O'Rourke said. "They represent one-third of those who are shot by law enforcement. We have something wrong. If we have the largest prison population on the face of the planet and it is comprised of people of color, we have something wrong in this country."

Fine then asked Cruz a pointed follow-up.

"Do you agree that police violence against unarmed African Americans is a problem and if so, how would you fix it?" Fine asked.

Cruz dodged the question, talking instead about violence against police.

"I believe everyone's rights should be protected. Regardless of your race or ethnicity. I've been to too many police funerals. I was here in Dallas when five police officers were gunned down because of irresponsible and hateful rhetoric," Cruz said. "I was at the funeral in Houston Second Baptist Church where the deputy was shot in the back of the head at a service station because of irresponsible and hateful rhetoric."

SMU political science professor Mathew Wilson said both sides could take away positives from the debate.

"Overall, I don't think either candidate will be displeased with his performance," Wilson said. "I don't think this debate, in and of itself, will dramatically change the dynamics of the race, but we'll see where things stand going forward."

Wilson was most surprised, he said, by the amount of red, or blue, meat O'Rourke threw out to the left wing.

"I was a little bit surprised by the number of appeals O'Rourke made to the Democratic base, particularly to minority voters. Talking about a path to legalization for all illegal immigrants, talking about the issue of police shootings of African Americans," Wilson said.

While Cruz did not stick around to speak with media after the debate, O'Rourke said he enjoyed the debate, but questioned Cruz characterizations of some of his positions.

"This is the first debate like this I've ever done, so I didn't totally know what to expect. I thought the questions were good," O' Rourke said. "I thought there was a real clear contrast in the answers given. I think Senator Cruz has a tendency to mischaracterize a position.

"If we're talking about NFL players who are kneeling during the national anthem at a football game to call attention to injustice in this country, he'll talk about flag burning. If we're talking about ending the war on drugs because it's become the war on people and some people over other people in this country ... he'll talk about legalizing heroin or fentanyl. No one wants to do any of those things."

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