Cruz vs O'Rourke: Several things to watch for in Tuesday's debate


Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) will square off in a debate on Tuesday at a pivotal moment in the hotly contested Senate race.

The debate comes days after O’Rourke announced a record-shattering fundraising haul, even as he continues to lag in the polls.

The debate gives him an opening to go on offense against a seasoned debater who's aggressively attacked him as a liberal out of touch with deep-red Texas.

Here are the five things to watch in Tuesday night’s debate, which starts at 9 p.m. ET:

Can O’Rourke put Cruz on defense?

Cruz, a champion debater from his days at Princeton University, was mainly on offense at the first debate. He aggressively tore into O’Rourke’s record and sought to closely align him with the Democratic establishment.

O’Rourke countered with a few of his own jabs, bemoaning that Cruz’s tactics are the reason Americans are frustrated with Washington.

But in Tuesday’s debate, O’Rourke is likely going to need to land a knock-out punch to help move the needle over the next three weeks.

When asked at the end of the last debate to say what they admired about their opponent, O’Rourke played nice, while Cruz ended his answer with a subtle jab.

O’Rourke will likely need to turn up the heat in this debate to keep pace with Cruz — or at least deliver a memorable zinger.

Will culture wars dominate again?

The candidates were asked about kitchen table issues, but a significant part of their first debate was consumed by culture wars and identity politics.

Both candidates sparred over controversial issues like police shootings and guns in school. O’Rourke defended his support for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem — a viral moment of the campaign that Cruz has seized on.

During that debate, Cruz claimed that O’Rourke always “sides against the police,” while O’Rourke used his past drunk driving arrest as a way to highlight the need for criminal justice reform.

The spotlight on culture war issues is likely more beneficial to Cruz since some of those topics have been used to rile up the conservative base in the deep-red state.

O'Rourke will need to draw more attention to issues like health care, which Democrats believe is a winning issue this cycle, particularly when it comes to preserving protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions — a popular ObamaCare provision.

How will Cruz continue to tie O'Rourke to Dem party?

Like other Republican candidates in Senate debates, Cruz repeatedly brought up 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders as a way to paint O’Rourke as a liberal that wouldn’t stray away from the Washington establishment.

O’Rourke has said he’ll work with Trump where there’s agreement, and at the last debate, noted that he didn’t care about party.

But Cruz is hoping that raising the specter of Clinton and other Democratic politicians whom Republicans use as boogeymen will counter the notion that O’Rourke will be an independent mind in the Senate.

Cruz, for example, has seized on the endorsement of O'Rourke by Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against Trump.

At a Friday rally in Houston, Cruz referred to Avenatti as someone "who I think right now is the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2020."

Expect Cruz to not only mention Clinton again, but frequently bring up Avenatti and other Democrats connected to Washington like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

How will O’Rourke, Cruz differ on foreign policy?

The first debate was focused completely on domestic policy. Tuesday’s debate will be divided between domestic and foreign policy questions, which will likely expose more rifts between the two candidates.

Foreign policy and national security issues like the Iran deal, the rocky relationship between the U.S. and North Korea and Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin are likely topics that could be broached at Tuesday’s showdown.

Cruz and O’Rourke are on opposite sides over Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

While noting that the deal isn’t “perfection,” O’Rourke has called the agreement a “critical international effort” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.

Meanwhile, Cruz strongly supported the president’s move and has previously called the deal a “catastrophe”

Questions on North Korea and Russia could also expose the differences the candidates have with Trump.

O’Rourke called for a vote to impeach the president following his Helsinki summit with Putin. But the Democratic congressman also took aim at Cruz for not standing up to Trump on foreign election interference.

Cruz has previously said that he believes it’s a “mistake” to apologize to Putin, but also took aim at Democrats’ reaction to Trump and Putin’s meeting.

Can O’Rourke counter GOP enthusiasm on Kavanaugh?

The last Senate debate was held about a week before Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford testified about allegations that he sexually assaulted her in high school, which he has denied.

This is Cruz and O’Rourke’s first in-person encounter since that testimony and Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the high court.

Cruz has been a strong defender of Kavanaugh and will likely draw that stark contrast with O’Rourke, who said he wouldn’t have supported his confirmation if he was in the Senate.

At the last debate, Cruz hammered O’Rourke over the Supreme Court, arguing that like Clinton, “he wants liberal judicial activists on the court.”

O’Rourke has said that he finds Kavanaugh to have a “troubling history” when it comes voting rights protections as well as civil rights.

Republicans have been touting the party’s new-found voter enthusiasm since the Supreme Court debacle. Some polls have shown a spike in energy among Republicans who are more enthusiastic to vote in November.

That energy has likely helped Cruz solidify his high single-digit lead over O’Rourke. The Democratic congressman will need to find a way to cut through the GOP’s momentum on the Supreme Court in a ruby-red state like Texas.

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