By Corrie MacLaggan
GARLAND, Texas (Reuters) - In a windowless room at a Holiday Inn outside Dallas, U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz pleaded with Tea Party movement activists recently to tap their social networks and pocketbooks in the final days of a brutal Republican primary runoff against Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
"The other side is convinced that the Tea Party is irrelevant and a bunch of nut jobs," Cruz, a Houston lawyer who has never held elected office, said to laughter. "That's what they think of us. They think we're off our rockers."
For Cruz, a former state solicitor general, 18 months of shaking hands come down to whether he can turn out enough supporters on July 31 to become the latest insurgent Republican to topple an establishment candidate.
Dewhurst, 66, and Cruz, 41, are vying to replace retiring Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.
Early voting began Monday, and the campaigns are unveiling attack ads, making last-minute calls to voters and bringing out star supporters. Former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is to join Cruz on Friday at a rally near Houston. Texas Governor Rick Perry voted alongside Dewhurst on Monday in Austin.
"The fact that Cruz has turned this into a real barn-burner as we approach July 31 is a real problem for Dewhurst," said Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston. "Clearly, the real momentum and the advantage is with Cruz. If Cruz wins, he'd send shock waves through the Republican establishment."
Dewhurst, who founded an energy and investment company, has spent millions of his own money on his campaign and his support from key Texas Republicans normally would suggest he "would have been almost in cruise control, looking at an overwhelming victory," Jones said.
Instead, a recent poll from the Democratic survey group Public Policy Polling showed Cruz with a small lead and very enthusiastic supporters - which could be key for a low-turnout summer race.
In the May primary election, Dewhurst fell short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff, getting 45 percent of the vote in a crowded field, to 34 percent for Cruz.
As of July 11, Cruz had raised a total of $9 million. Dewhurst had raised a total of $24.5 million, $16.5 million of which was his money. He paid himself back $5.4 million of that.
PULLING OUT ALL STOPS
Tea Party and conservative groups seeking deep cuts in U.S. federal government spending and low taxes, are pulling out all the stops for Cruz.
The national conservative group Club for Growth has spent more than $2.5 million for Cruz in the runoff, leading Dewhurst to skewer Cruz for depending on "Washington insiders."
Another national conservative group, FreedomWorks, urged activists to make calls for Cruz, who is set to speak at a massive FreedomWorks gathering in Dallas on Thursday.
Among the other speakers at that gathering is Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party movement-backed candidate who defeated longtime U.S. Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary in Indiana.
Since Mourdock's primary win, and that of Nebraska first-time statewide candidate Deb Fischer, who beat veteran attorney general Jon Bruning in a U.S. Senate primary, insurgent Republican groups have hoped for a similar story in Texas.
But Dewhurst has strong conservative credentials and does not have weaknesses of Lugar and Bruning, Jones said. Political analysts attributed Lugar's loss to his losing touch with his home state, and Nebraska's Bruning was wounded by ethics issues.
"If Ted Cruz can pull this off, it will show that the Republican Party of the future looks a lot more like the Tea Party," said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks. "And if that party wants to win it will need to find more people like Ted Cruz."
At the Garland gathering, where some wore T-shirts emblazoned with American flags or "I am the Tea Party," many viewed Dewhurst as a sort of incumbent, even though the former Texas land commissioner, who became lieutenant governor in 2003, has never served in the U.S. Senate.
"I think it's time for new blood," said retiree Tony Perez, 69. "Mr. Dewhurst has been around long enough."
Perez, who is Hispanic, said the fact that Cruz, whose father came to the United States from Cuba, would be the first Hispanic U.S. senator from Texas has "no correlation whatsoever" to his support for him.
Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson asked for donations as she introduced Cruz to the more than 75 attendees, saying Cruz needed to "stay on television fighting back against the nasty, nasty character assassination that our sitting lieutenant governor is doing to him."
In a televised debate on Monday in Houston, Dewhurst defended his ads, saying that since the two candidates agree on "virtually every issue," it is important for voters to know about Cruz's legal clients.
"When you in fact choose - choose - to represent a Chinese company that kills American jobs, at least that's something that people should know about," Dewhurst said.
Cruz's website says his representing a tire company that long ago moved its manufacturing to China had not cost American manufacturing jobs.
Last Thursday, Dewhurst spoke at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post near Dallas, where business consultant Jean Howard, 69, said she supports him because he has "a proven track record as a fiscal conservative and knows how to work across the aisle for the good of the public."
"Ted Cruz has potential but he has not been proven in the ballot box in a local, county or state election," she said.
(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Chicago, Marice Richter in Dallas and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)