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In Texas, the race is on to see who will replace Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. She's retiring after nearly 20 years in the U. S. Senate. The front-runner and party establishment favorite is the current lieutenant governor of Texas. But no surprise, a Tea Party candidate, this one the son of a Cuban immigrant, is putting up a strong challenge. And to round out the competitive field, is a former mayor of Dallas. From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's high noon at the Stephenville Community Center out on Highway 67 and the Cross Timbers Republican Women's Club Candidates Forum is about to begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

MARY FORD: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm so glad you're here. My name is Mary Ford and I'm a vice president of the Cross Timbers Republican Women...

GOODWYN: Time has run out on this Republican primary. This is the last chance for these candidates to make an impression.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We do have the former mayor of Dallas with us.

GOODWYN: First up, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

TOM LEPPERT: It's great to be with you. And I appreciate the opportunity. We are at the cliff and the clock is running. We have a president who has turned his back on the Constitution.

GOODWYN: If the latest polls are accurate, Tom Leppert is currently running a distant third behind Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz. Dewhurst is the GOP establishment candidate, backed by Texas Governor Rick Perry. Cruz is courting the Tea Party vote, so Leppert has positioned himself as the businessman who knows how to balance a budget.

LEPPERT: I'm a conservative businessman. As mayor of Dallas, we did some pretty unusual things. We reduced the civilian workforce by 20 percent.

GOODWYN: But this is west Texas and while they applaud the former Dallas mayor's speech politely, they're looking for redder meat than budget talk. Ted Cruz serves it up within seconds of stepping to microphone.

TED CRUZ: Barack Obama is the most radical president this country's ever seen. And the unhappy truth is as bad as Obama's been, he didn't invent spending. It was a bipartisan problem long before he got elected.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, it was.

GOODWYN: Around the room, heads bob in agreement. The proposition that President Obama is a radical socialist is accepted fact with this group. But when Cruz says that Republicans are equally to blame for the debt problem, heads bob just as emphatically. The room knows that's true too. In two deft sentences, the former solicitor general has positioned himself outside both parties as the only real conservative with a chance to win.

CRUZ: From Ed Meese to Phyllis Schlafly to Dr. James Dobson to the five strongest conservatives in the U.S. Senate - Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, and Tom Coburn - every one of them is united behind this campaign. If conservatives continue to unite, and I ask for your help, we're going to win this race. And when we win this race, Texas will lead the fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GOODWYN: Three hours south geographically and a million miles culturally, in Austin Texas, Schultz's Beer Garden is packed for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOPPING THE BLUES")

BAND: (Singing) All my friends are bopping the blues. It must be going round.

GOODWYN: This is a completely different Republican crowd - Mercedes Benz parked outside, not F-150s. No iced tea or folding chairs. Here there's a tight band, expansive bar and well coifed, good looking Texas women laughing as they drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOPPING THE BLUES")

BAND: I love you, baby. I must be rhythm bound. All right. Go.

GOODWYN: There's power gathered in this room and the front-running Lieutenant Governor is pleased.

DAVID DEWHURST: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here. Wow, what a great crowd. What a great crowd. It's amazing what beer will do. It really is.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GOODWYN: There's no need for David Dewhurst to dish red meat here, this crowd isn't interested in getting the U.S. out of the U.N. They're building relationships and having a beer. Nevertheless, the candidate runs through his reasons for seeking the Senate like a tired runner approaching the finish line.

DEWHURST: And I'm running for the United States Senate because on day one I want to push for the repeal of Obamacare.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

DEWHURST: I'm running for the United States Senate because I want to keep America strong and I'm tired of the federal government not doing their job. We need to secure our borders.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GOODWYN: If Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum have endorsed Ted Cruz, Texas Governor Rick Perry and a whole host of other Texas Republicans are behind David Dewhurst. If the lieutenant governor can't get 50 percent of the vote today, there'll be a two man run-off in late July.

Oh yes, the Democrats are having their Senate primary election too. The experts say someday the Texas Democratic Party will rise again to challenge Republicans for control of the state. But that future is not yet here.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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