The Brief: Top Texas News for May 14, 2012

David Dewhurst, Tom Leppert, Ted Cruz and Craig James in Dallas at a U.S. Senate debate on April 13, 2012.

The Big Conversation:

With early voting now under way, an internal campaign email has ratcheted up the drama in the state’s U.S. Senate race.

In the email, obtained by Politico, Dave Carney, a top political adviser to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst claims that rival Tom Leppert, the former Dallas mayor, could finish ahead of Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general, whom recent polling has shown running second to Dewhurst.

“I assume by today Leppert has close the margin and is now ahead of Ted,” Carney wrote in the email, which was sent internally on Thursday. “Leppert’s TV ads and debate performances are clearly helping him. Expect the mayor to define and engage Cruz outside of dallas so he can bury Cruz and finish second. … With Cruz flat-lined and the Mayor growing, (pollster Mike) Baselice tells me he is confident Leppert could thread the needle and pass Cruz as Staffer and his allies attack only us.”

The email reflects the fluidity of the race, in which several Republican contenders have set their sights on second place — and a spot in a potential runoff alongside Dewhurst, the presumptive front-runner. 

But, as Politico notes, Carney may have also been attempting a head-fake — hoping to distract from Cruz, whom polls have shown gaining ground on Dewhurst, and who last week got a boost from the conservative Club for Growth, which announced a $1 million ad buy targeting Dewhurst.

“It conveys the impression that Dewhurst’s camp is most concerned about Cruz making the runoff, creating a very different frame for a two-man race,” Maggie Haberman writes.

After all, in the wake of longtime Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar‘s defeat last week, attention in conservative circles turned not to Leppert but to Cruz, whom Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard deemed the next insurgent

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