Large Expected Audience For Cruz-O’Rourke Debate Could Make Likability More Important

Cruz is a more seasoned debater, but O’Rourke has charisma that may play well with viewers who wouldn’t normally tune in.

By Rhonda Fanning & Morgan KuehlerSeptember 21, 2018 1:00 pm|

Friday is the first of three broadcast debates between the Democratic Congressman from El Paso, Beto O’Rourke, and the guy he’s trying to topple, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Houston. It’s taking place at Southern Methodist University, and the broadcast will start at 6 p.m. CDT, 5 p.m. in El Paso.

Expect to hear the overtime buzzer frequently, says Texas Monthly’s R.G. Ratcliffe. Both candidates tend to be long-winded, and each is trying to inch ahead of the other in this close race. Currently, Cruz is leading with 47 percent favorability to O’Rourke’s 44 percent, among likely voters. But with a margin of error at plus or minus four percentage points, the race is a statistical tie.

One thing Ratcliffe says viewers should be aware of in this debate is the different styles of the two candidates. He says O’Rourke has eschewed a confrontational approach to the race, but that Cruz is taking a different tack.

“Cruz wants to make it a confrontation and try to pin Beto down into debating specific issues back and forth, because Cruz believes … if he can get O’Rourke on some of these hot-button issues like gun control or certain aspects of immigration, that the debate’ll work to his benefit,” Ratcliffe says.

Indeed, immigration will be an important topic during the debate, Ractliffe says. That’s because the family separation policy is still fresh in people’s minds, especially in Texas. He says O’Rourke has used the issue to promote what he considers to be Texas values.

“Even the kids [that] are staying with their parents now, they’re still in detention, so it’s kinda like kiddie jail,” Ratcliffe says. “O’Rourke’s like, this is about Texas values.”

Cruz is taking a law-and-order approach to immigration.

“He’s … pushing this idea that coming in illegally, without documentation, is a crime,” Ratcliffe says.

Ratcliffe says Cruz has done this by telling the story of a San Francisco woman who was killed by a man who had entered the U.S. illegally several times.

Ratcliffe says Cruz has an advantage coming into the debate because he has been through debates  before, especially during his presidential campaign.

“So [Cruz is] gonna have a better feel for how to control the stage,” Ratcliffe says. “O’Rourke tends to ramble and … he may never get to his point before his time runs out,” Ratcliffe says.

But O’Rourke does have following that has helped build momentum for his campaign thus far. Some say it’s because he has a John F. Kennedy-like presence. Ratcliffe says there is some truth to that.

“That’s gonna be a fairly substantial part of it. I mean, Beto does have that kind of Kennedy feel … he’s personable,” Ratcliffe says.

He says Cruz doesn’t have the same likability because he can be dogmatic, and some have even compared him to Grandpa from the old TV show “The Munsters.” But none of that really matters to his supporters.

“Cruz’s issues tend to resonate with hard-core Republicans and they’re not looking for personality,” Ratcliffe says.

Ratcliffe says debates like these are usually only viewed by close followers of the race – those who tend to already know who they’re voting for. But this one is drawing a wider range of interest.

“I do think that you’re gonna have a lot of Texans who don’t normally tune in to politics paying attention to this one, so the likability factor could play very high in this,” Ratcliffe says.

Written by Caroline Covington.