But the first statewide televised debate Monday night in Texas' most competitive primary also revealed new distinctions—and new attacks—in a race among four big-name conservatives who are almost ideologically identical.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson left open the door for medical marijuana legalization in Texas, setting him apart from opponents state Sen. Dan Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
"I'm not a doctor. But if there is medical efficacy for the use of tetrahydrocannabinol, and the doctor prescribes it, I don't see nothing wrong with it," Patterson said. "We're talking about medicine. We're not talking about recreational use."
Patrick said no way.
"There's no chance of that passing in the Texas Legislature," he said.
But all four candidates said there was no doubt that, if elected, they would strengthen laws so there would be no debate whether a baby should be born in the event of a brain-dead, pregnant mother. A Fort Worth hospital complied Sunday with an order to pull life-sustaining treatment for Marlise Munoz and her 23-week-old fetus.
"It is an extremely difficult set of circumstances. But we need to make certain that as a society, we are protecting life," Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said.
Dewhurst, Patterson and Patrick echoed similar sentiments.
"We need to clarify the law on this and permit this baby to be born," Dewhurst said.
The fetus was not delivered when John Peter Smith Hospital obeyed the judge's order to take Munoz off life support. She was declared brain-dead in November, but the hospital said it kept her on machines for the sake of the fetus in accordance with Texas law.
The case also triggered debates about abortion and end-of-life decisions.
Stakes were higher in the first statewide televised debate in any race. But this foursome arrived well-rehearsed, if not a little road-weary.
Campaign aides said Monday's debate marked at least the 24th debate or forum featuring all or most of the field. Many are hosted by local tea party groups—yet another was scheduled for Tuesday night in Salado, about 50 miles north of Austin—and follow a script of each candidate parsing otherwise identical conservative stances on border security, education and gun rights.
But for Monday's living-room audiences in Austin, Houston, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley, candidates were often knocked off their talking points and forced to answer sometimes uncomfortable questions.
Patrick, who filed for bankruptcy in the 1980s, defended not repaying a six-figure debt even though the Houston conservative now has the financial means.
"The law of bankruptcy allows you to start with a clean slate," Patrick said. "I followed the law. It's very tough when you lose everything you have."
Dewhurst, meanwhile, shook off criticism about the past year, including leading the Senate when Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis launched into her nearly 13-hour filibuster and became a national star for her party. He also defended calling a North Texas police department in August on behalf of a family member who was arrested on allegations of shoplifting, which led to opponents of accusing him of abusing his power.
Dewhurst questioned "what kind of man" wouldn't make that call.
"I would like that type of man who would make a call for your family, and would make a call for the people of Texas," Dewhurst said.
Staples later criticized Dewhurst for supporting term limits in a race where he's seeking a fourth term, having been in office since 2002.
The primary is March 4. Awaiting the winner in November is presumptive Democratic nominee Leticia Van de Putte, who emerged as a late challenger to take over the Senate chamber where she's served for a decade.
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