Ted Cruz versus Beto O’Rourke! In verbal combat! Yes, people, we just had the first big debate of the election season.

The super-cool El Paso congressman versus the U.S. senator so unbeloved that his own party is moaning about the likability problem.

Challenged to say something nice about his opponent, O’Rourke praised Cruz for his hard work, and thanked him for his public service. In response, Cruz said O’Rourke was “absolutely sincere” and compared him to that socialist Bernie Sanders.

And so it goes.

No one had really anticipated the Texas race would be a contest — the Democrats haven’t had a senator there since the year Britney Spears joined the Mickey Mouse Club.

But O’Rourke has way overachieved expectations. He’s raised tons more money than Cruz, and none whatsoever from PACs. While the polls are all over the place, some have shown him closing in fast.

During the first minute of the debate, O’Rourke managed to point out that he’d visited all 254 Texas counties during his campaign. (Hitting every single county at least once is a classic political ploy, but try doing it in Texas.) He was, inevitably, asked about a drunken-driving arrest in his past and managed to veer into both a salute to his family and a tribute to second chances.

Cruz has a long experience as a debater, and Republicans are generally cheered when he gets out of their faces and onto the podium. On Friday he pushed very hard on gun rights — he staunchly took a stand that no Texan should be “shot and killed in their own home.” When O’Rourke talked about the danger of assault weapons, Cruz said the real problem was “removing God from the public square.”

Whatever else you feel, you’d have to admit this race has been darned interesting. Beside the normal fights over guns and health care and immigration, at one point the Cruz campaign called O’Rourke a “Triple Meat Whataburger liberal who is out of touch with Texas values.” The state is still not entirely clear on what that means. Whataburger is a popular fast-food chain, and it seemed a lot like announcing your opponent was a left-wing Big Mac.

O’Rourke responded by eating a Whataburger and then skateboarding around the restaurant parking lot. We definitely need more of this kind of cheery diversion in politics. People are already talking about a presidential run if he wins. Actually, Beto is so hot that people are speculating about a presidential run if he loses.

Immigration was naturally a big issue in the debate; O’Rourke defended the Dreamers while Cruz implied that his opponent loved illegal immigrants more than Texans. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out in November. Outsiders tend to underestimate Texans’ rationality on the subject. You may be shocked to hear that most of them want well-trained border guards who do not separate children from their mothers. Also, they aren’t necessarily crazy about having a monster wall in the backyard.

The debate, unfortunately, did not get around to the first-name flap: When O’Rourke won the nomination in March, Cruz instantly ran a radio ad claiming “liberal Robert” had changed his name to Beto for political purposes.

Inquiring minds quickly noted that Cruz had morphed his own name from Rafael Edward to Ted.


Cruz’s explanation was to remind the world that he was “the son of Rafael Cruz, an immigrant from Cuba who came to Texas with nothing and had $100 in his underwear.”

Not precisely to the point. But the underwear story has always been a staple in Cruz’s political career. Less often mentioned is the fact that Dad actually emigrated from Cuba to Texas to Canada, where little Rafael/Ted was born.

Ethnic politics in Texas is very important, and in this race we have a non-Hispanic Democrat who was born near the Mexican border and was called Beto as a kid. Running against a Cuban-Canadian with an Anglo nickname. Only one of them speaks fluent Spanish, and it is not the one whose father had $100 in his skivvies.

Republicans have complained for years about how irritating they find Cruz. Do you remember when Lindsey Graham said that if Ted Cruz was murdered on the floor of the Senate “and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you?” But that was long ago, before the party had to protect a 51-49 majority. Right now, if Attila the Hun was their candidate they’d be running ads about his great skills in horsemanship.

Cruz, you’ll recall, ran for president in 2016, against a “sniveling coward” named Donald Trump, who insulted Cruz’s wife and claimed his father was connected to the Kennedy assassination. Now all that’s all forgotten. Well, at least ignored.

“I have worked hand in hand with the president on substance,” Cruz said during the debate, veering very quickly into tax cuts and an argument that holding a grudge would be “selfish.”

Meanwhile, Trump is promising to hold a big rally for Cruz in October. And he dispatched Ivanka to tour the space center in Houston with the senator.

Imagine spending the week listening to your father trash Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser and discussing the future of space exploration with Ted Cruz. Sometimes you have to feel sorry for Ivanka. Even if she does refer to herself as The First Daughter.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Gail Collins © 2018 The New York Times