AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate candidate in Texas with Tea Party backing may win enough votes in Tuesday's Republican primary to force a runoff with the state's lieutenant governor, setting up another battle for the soul of the national Republican Party.
Twice this year an insurgent conservative Senate candidate has upended a traditional Republican - in Indiana, where a candidate backed by the Tea Party movement beat longtime U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, and in Nebraska, where first-time statewide candidate Deb Fischer defeated a veteran attorney general.
Emboldened by the victories, national conservatives have turned their attention to Texas, where they believe Cuban-American Ted Cruz could be a new Republican star.
Last year, it seemed unlikely that the Texas front-runner, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, would face a serious threat for the seat that Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is leaving after 19 years on the job.
But that was before former state Solicitor General Cruz started drawing money from national conservative groups such as Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, and endorsements from former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
Dewhurst, who has the backing of Texas Governor Rick Perry, is now locked in a battle with Cruz, a Houston lawyer whose father came from Cuba with $100 sewn into his underwear.
The Republican race - almost certainly the only primary that matters in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994 - is shaping up as a fight over who is the most conservative.
It looks unlikely that Dewhurst will be able to win the 50 percent-plus-one votes necessary to avoid a runoff on July 31 between the top two candidates, said Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston.
"Everything started snowballing," Jones said. "The Cruz campaign keeps generating more and more enthusiasm."
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released on Monday showed Dewhurst had the support of 40 percent of likely Republican primary voters, and Cruz had 31 percent. Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert had 17 percent and Craig James, a former NFL football player and ESPN analyst, got 4 percent. Another poll has Dewhurst at 46 percent, closer to the magic number to avoid a runoff.
Dewhurst has loaned his campaign $9.2 million, his campaign said. Cruz has received $3.6 million from the Club for Growth since last December, according to regulatory filings and recent statements from the group. The Senate Conservatives Fund, led by Jim DeMint, a Republican U.S. senator from South Carolina beloved by the Tea Party, has spent just over $1 million for Cruz.
FreedomWorks has hosted 26 grassroots training events in the past year in Texas, where it has 32 distribution centers that provide volunteers with Ted Cruz yard signs and door hangers, according to Brendan Steinhauser, its director of campaigns.
The Tea Party movement and its backers, who are seeking deep cuts in U.S. government spending, say they want to elect "true" conservative candidates - such as the upstarts in Indiana and Nebraska - who will challenge the status quo in Washington.
"The conservative groups that were involved in those races are energized and all of that firepower is now focused on the race in Texas," said Drew Ryun, president of American Majority Action, a conservative group that trains activists.
But the Texas race is somewhat different. Indiana's Lugar was accused of being out of touch with the state, and ethical problems dogged Nebraska's Jon Bruning; Dewhurst's candidacy does not have such serious flaws, Jones said. But critics argue that Dewhurst is not a dynamic leader and that he has compromised with Democrats to get things done in the Texas Senate, Jones said.
"That has been his record over and over again: that he's a conciliator, he cuts the baby in half, he's increased spending," Cruz said in an interview on Thursday.
Dewhurst, who as lieutenant governor has presided over the Texas Senate since 2003, said after a campaign event at the Scholz Garten bar and restaurant in Austin on Wednesday that he has been the most fiscally and socially conservative lieutenant governor in Texas history.
Dewhurst, a former state land commissioner who stands 6-feet 6-inches tall, touts his experience as a businessman as well as serving in the U.S. Air Force and with the CIA.
In Houston on Thursday evening, Cruz told enthusiastic supporters at the Armadillo Palace restaurant that the race was going "incredibly, dizzyingly, unbelievably" well. Database analyst Henry Wycislo explained why he came to the campaign event: "Tea Party all the way."
Political scientist Jones said that if Dewhurst is forced into a runoff on July 31, summer turnout will be low and the fervor among Tea Party supporters could help Cruz.
But Dewhurst criticized the support Cruz is receiving from groups outside Texas. "One thing that Mr. Cruz is sadly mistaken on: He ain't met a fighter before like me," Dewhurst said.
Additional reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Beech