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WATCH: Cruz, O'Rourke Square Off In Testy Dallas Debate

It was more duel than debate Friday night in Dallas as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke went after each other from the start. Snappy and heavy on snark, Cruz and O’Rourke held nothing back in the first of three debates.

Friday’s focus was domestic policy, and the candidates sparred over everything from immigration, health care and gun control to their opinions on professional football players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Video: Rewatch the debate, courtesy of KXAS-TV/NBC5

Cruz went out of his way to paint O’Rourke as to the left of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders, someone “out of step with the people of Texas” who wants to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, take away Texans’ guns, and impeach President Trump.  

“We’re seeing nationally socialists like Bernie Sanders, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, indeed, Congressman Beto O’Rourke advocating for those same policies,” Cruz said.

O’Rourke, an El Paso Congressman, accused Cruz of caring more about tax cuts for corporations than his constituents, saying he wanted “to deport each and every single Dreamer," and criticizing him for being an absentee senator who spent more time campaigning in Iowa than Texas.

“In 2016, he missed half of the votes in the United States Senate,” O’Rourke said. “You tell me who can miss half of the days of work and still be rehired for the same job going forward. That’s not what Texans want.”

The surprisingly competitive Senate race has become one of the most watched and talked-about contest of the 2018 midterms. Once considered a safe seat for Cruz, recent polls show the candidates running within single digits of each other. Just this week, the Cook Political Report reclassified the race, calling it a tossup. That’s a big deal in Texas, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. And it's a big deal nationally too: Democrats are likely to retake control of the House in November. If O'Rourke and other candidates in close races win, they could wrest control of the Senate from Republicans too

'Legal: good. Illegal: bad'

The vast differences between the two candidates on almost every hot topic were on display, particularly immigration and border security.  

“When it comes to immigration, we need to do everything humanly possible to secure the border,” Cruz said. “That means building the wall. That means technology. That means infrastructure. That means boots on the ground. And we can do that all at the same time that we are celebrating legal immigrants.”

Cruz said he could sum up his position in four words: “Legal: Good. Illegal: Bad." 

O’Rourke says the U.S. needed to “bring people out of the shadows, allow them to get right by law.”

O’Rourke chided Cruz for supporting legislation that would have allocated billions of dollars to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and called for an earned path to citizenship.

“The alternative, as Senator Cruz has proposed, is to deport 11 million people from this country,” O’Rourke said. “Imagine the cost, imagine the stain on this country for generations moving forward.”

A Senate candidate gun fight

The crowd watching the debate at Southern Methodist University Friday was most animated while Cruz and O’Rourke took on guns, police violence and mass shootings.

The Dallas debate comes as North Texas has grappled both with the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white Dallas police officer and the killing of a Fort Worth police officer who was shot trying to stop a robbery. A few weeks ago, a white officer from the Dallas suburbs was convicted of murdering a black teenager.

A question about the shooting of 26-year-old Botham Jean pivoted into Cruz chastising O'Rourke for calling for the officer’s firing, using hateful rhetoric and "turning people against the police." He raised the specter of the 2016 ambush killing of five Dallas officers by a troubled Army veteran, reportedly upset by stories of police brutaily.  

Cruz said O’Rourke wanted to get rid of the Second Amendment, prompting O’Rourke to say that wasn’t the case. O’Rourke talked about learning to shoot as a kid, but also said it’s time for universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.

“The high-velocity high-impact round from an AR-15 will blow a hole the size of an orange out your back,” O’Rourke said. “You will bleed to death before anybody can get to you. That’s exactly what it was designed to do. Weapons of war belong on the battlefields, not in our churches, our schools, our concerts or our public life.”

Texas has been in the headlines for two high-profile mass shootings over the past year — one in November 2017 at a church in Sutherland Springs and another in May at Santa Fe High School, outside of Houston.

Cruz recalled meeting with students and teachers from the school.

“They said ... ‘if you take our guns you’re not going to make us any safer. You’re just going to mean that more killers and murderers have guns,’” Cruz said. “We asked ‘Well, what do you do then?’ The No. 1 answer was more armed police officers in schools. We can make our schools safer by having officers protect them.”

O’Rourke mentioned a conversation he had with the mother of a Santa Fe victim. He said she told him that bringing guns into classrooms wouldn't have saved her daughter's life.  

“Thoughts and prayers, Senator Cruz, are just not going to cut it anymore. ... The children of Texas deserve action,” O’Rourke said.

Cruz responded: “More armed police in our schools is not 'thoughts and prayers.' I’m sorry that you don’t like thoughts and prayers. I will pray for anyone in harm’s way, but I will also do something about it.”

Biting to the end

The debate was testy through the last question of the night. Candidates were asked about what they admired about their opponent.

Cruz compared O’Rourke to socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

O’Rourke replied: “True to form.”

KERA's Bill Zeeble, Christopher Connelly, Anthony Cave and Molly Evans contributed to this report.

Learn more: More debates

Cruz and O'Rourke will face off again Sept. 30 in Houston and Oct. 16 in San Antonio. Election Day is Nov. 6. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 9.

Learn more: The gun debate

3 Things We Heard About Guns During The Debate

Rachel Osier Lindley is Statewide Senior Editor for The Texas Newsroom.