AUSTIN -- It was a more informal setting for the second U.S. Senate debate between David Dewhurst, Ted Cruz, Tom Leppert, and Craig James.
Hosted by the Texas Association of Business at the University of Texas' AT&T Conference Center, the four leading Republican contenders addressed economic issues beginning with federal entitlement programs.
"Our entitlements -- Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security -- will bankrupt this country unless we make some reforms," said Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
Nearly all of the GOP candidates voiced support for raising the retirement age and reducing cost of living increases for Social Security.
"We have to be real about this. We have to extend the expectancy of life," said former ESPN football analyst Craig James.
"We're going to incentivise people to work longer because it's in their interest," said former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert.
Candidates also agreed on supporting a balanced budget amendment. Former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz used the issue to accuse the lieutenant governor of "funny math" regarding the Texas budget.
"In Washington accounting he's right, but if you use basic arithmetic, he's not right," said Cruz.
Candidates largely matched up when asked for budget solutions outside entitlements.
Dewhurst, Cruz, and former James each called for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. Cruz said he would most like to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service in favor of a flat tax or national sales tax, while Leppert broke from the pack in suggesting an audit of the Department of Defense.
The first real differences arose over dealing with China.
Leppert said America needs to get its own financial house in order before criticizing China for manipulating its currency. James suggested America should develop one-sided trade agreements with struggling European nations in order to increase American exports.
Cruz and Dewhurst clashed over the issue of tariffs, with Cruz revisiting a campaign anecdote (PolitiFact Texas: Mostly True) in which he accuses of Dewhurst of calling him a "communist."
"When I spoke out at the time and said I would have voted against the tariff bill, Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst's campaign sent out an email calling me a 'red Chinese communist,'" said Cruz.
Asked what their primary focus would be if elected as freshman U.S. Senator, each candidate offered up something different.
Craig James said defense of freedom and the U.S. Constitution would be his first objective. Dewhurst said he would target entitlement reform and a balanced budget agreement. Ted Cruz emphasized that repealing President Obama's health care legislation would be his first priority, while Leppert said he would focus on the economy.
The debate closed with the topic of unemployment insurance, with each candidate suggesting that 99 weeks is too long for benefits. Dewhurst called the program a "disincentive" to work, and along with Leppert and James called for Americans to be drug tested before qualifying for benefits.
A survey conducted January 12-15 by Public Policy Polling shows Dewhurst leading with 36 percent of likely GOP primary voters. Cruz is second with 18 percent, followed by Leppert with seven percent and James with four percent.