Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, face off Friday night in the first of three debates.
This matchup has become one of the most closely watched in the 2018 midterm election season, as Cruz tries to hold off O'Rourke and what Democrats hope will be a "blue wave."
Polls have only clouded the picture. A Quinnipiac survey of likely voters released this week showed Cruz up by nine percentage points; the next day, another poll from Reuters and the University of Virginia gave O'Rourke a two-point lead among likely voters.
For this week's Friday Conversation, KUT senior editor Ben Philpott tries to cut through the political noise and breaks down the talking points likely to dominate Friday's debate. Watch the debate live here.
On five hot-button issues in this domestic-policy debate
"From the president all the way down to the Texas Legislature, immigration and border security have been the two big things being pushed by Republicans.
"Health care, too. As the Affordable Care Act has been stripped of provisions over the last couple of years, the percentage of people in Texas without insurance has ticked up.
"Jobs, of course. How is the Texas economy doing?
"Guns, because that's just a constant debate across the nation.
"Trump will make an appearance ... in the rhetoric that we'll hear."
On making sense of poll results
"In Texas, you need about 800 or 900 people as part of a survey for it to be considered a good survey. You need to know are they talking to likely voters or registered voters? What's the population of the poll?
"If you can't readily find this information, then you should look a little sideways at the poll."
On where the campaign stands now
"I think this is a close race. An incumbent agreeing to three full debates in a race where they're up by 10 or 15 points is unheard of. Sen. Cruz needs the debates as much as O'Rourke does to make sure his base is coming out and maybe to persuade some people on the fence to come out and vote for them.
"I think the base of both candidates will see a home run, but it's whether we see a blatant mistake that someone can make at a debate ... It's the mistakes that people in the middle will be looking for to help make their minds up. "
On talk of a Democratic "blue wave" in Texas
"Across the state, you see Democrats believing this is a wave year across the country and it could help them. But, a wave year in Texas could mean a race where a Republican won by 20 points last time and only win by eight points this time. That's a big swing, but it's still a win for a Republican."
Intervew responses have been lightly edited for clarity.