While Dewhurst is the perceived front-runner, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz was the only one of his three GOP rivals to directly attack him during the debate in Austin. Cruz touted his own support among tea party favorites already in the U.S. Senate while accusing Dewhurst of being too moderate to represent Texas in Washington.
"He's a nice man, but his record is consistently been that of a conciliator, it has consistently been that of a moderate," Cruz said. "If you think what we need right now is a fighter, then I am asking for your support."
Dewhurst rejected the characterization and insisted that as a lawmaker he has a proven track record as a consistent conservative. As lieutenant governor, Dewhurst has presided over the Texas Senate since 2003.
"Some people talk, some people act," Dewhurst said, explaining how he has supported a federal balanced budget amendment. "I don't trust Washington politicians. They are not going to balance the budget unless you make them balance the budget. That's why we passed a resolution calling for a balanced budget amendment."
The candidates are competing for the Republican nomination to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is retiring at the end of the year.
The Republican candidate's debate took place at the annual conference of the Texas Association of Business, and the moderator was Bill Hammond, the group's president and CEO. Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and former ESPN football analyst Craig James also participated.
One of the big challenges in the race is that the candidates share the same policies on most issues and are struggling to differentiate themselves. Dewhurst has the dual advantages of name recognition and a $250 million personal fortune to help finance his race. Cruz has focused on winning grassroots and national tea party support while Leppert says he is an experienced CEO who can solve problems.
"What we have done in the past is put people in Washington who are professional politicians, or people who want to be professional politicians," said Leppert, who served four years as Dallas mayor after decades running businesses. "What I really bring is the perspective of business."
James portrays himself as a poor-kid-made-good who will bring common sense to government, touting his belief in God, family and the Constitution. He said his life experiences as a football player, businessman, broadcaster and parent qualifies him to serve in the Senate.
"God blessed me with the ability to communicate, and we need people to go to Washington who can communicate their experiences of being a citizen," James said.
The rivalry between Cruz and Dewhurst has come to symbolize what Cruz has called a civil war within the Republican Party between experienced leaders and tea party-infused newcomers over the definition of conservatism.
Dewhurst has won endorsements from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, activist Michael Reagan, mainstream trade and industry organizations as well as some anti-abortion groups. Cruz has the support former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, national tea party organizers and social conservative groups.
"I don't think he would blend in, I think he will be seen and heard," said Wilbur Yates, a Texas Association of Business board member who praised Cruz's combative style. "It's Cruz for me, and I just made that decision."
All of the candidates agreed on cutting spending on unemployment insurance, social security, Medicare and Medicaid to give greater power to the states and individuals, while protecting those who currently depend on the programs. There was universal opposition to the Obama administration's policies on health care, government spending and environmental regulation.
Cruz opposed imposing tariffs on China for currency manipulation while the others supported taking a tougher stance. Dewhurst said he was not opposed to a constitutional convention to require a balanced budget if Congress would not approve one. Cruz, who voiced support for a convention in 2010 according to press reports, said Wednesday that he now opposes it.
So far, though, the primary election date remains uncertain because minority groups have sued the state, claiming that political maps drawn by the Texas Legislature minimize their voting power. A San Antonio federal court has given the Texas attorney general and those groups until Feb. 6 to draft compromise maps. If that deadline is missed, the court will push back the April 3 primary date.