Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are now attacking each other in what has become a two-man race in Iowa – the first test in the long battle for the Republican nomination.
But unlike earlier scraps involving so-called establishment candidates, Trump and Cruz’s jabs are part of a fight for the party’s most conservative wing -- and the war of words carries the risk of alienating those same voters.
“Ted’s not a person that’s liked. He’s a nasty guy,” Trump said Wednesday on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends,” essentially repeating what he’s said for days about the Texas senator.
Several polls suggest Cruz and Trump indeed are competing for the same voting bloc, considering many likely Cruz voters see Trump as their second choice, and vice-versa. A recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register survey, for example, found that 47 percent of Trump supporters picked Cruz as their second choice in Iowa. And 25 percent of Cruz supporters had Trump as their No. 2.
Below them in the polls, the wide field of GOP candidates is competing for the rest, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson composing the second tier nationally.
Political analysts have mixed views on whether the Trump-Cruz attacks will hurt or help either candidate.
David Payne, a Republican strategist and senior vice president for Vox Global, thinks neither will benefit from personal attacks, but suggests Cruz has the most to lose.
“It certainly has gotten really nasty, really quick,” he said.
But analysts essentially agree the truth will be revealed after the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, dominated by conservative voters.
“It remains to be seen,” Julianne Thompson, founder of the Free America Project and a former co-chairman of the Atlanta Tea Party, said. “There’s a competition for evangelical voters. And we’ll see whether they respond to Ted Cruz’s message and if he gets the campaign energy that Trump now has.”
Still, Thompson thinks Cruz vs. Trump is good overall for conservatives, whom she thinks have been “disenfranchised” by Republican politics.
“They felt betrayed,” she said. “But they’ve stormed back in 2016 because of these candidates. … I don’t believe the evangelical base will be divided. But a lot will be decided in Iowa.”
In the early months of the campaign, Cruz and Trump appeared to have an unspoken agreement not to attack each other, even appearing together at a Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill. But signs of the inevitable emerged just minutes after the rally -- when Cruz suggested he attended because any event featuring Trump would bring TV cameras and free media.
Then, Cruz in November started his double-digit surge in Iowa.
As Cruz scooped up potential votes left by the slipping campaign of evangelical favorite Carson, Trump started his attacks by suggesting the Canada-born Cruz might not be a “natural-born citizen,” a situation Democrats, he said, could use to invalidate a Cruz presidency.
He also repeated the details of a news story about Cruz failing to disclose on federal campaign-finance papers a Goldman Sachs loan in his 2012 Senate run.
But in roughly the past week, Trump’s attacks, as they have with other candidates, turned personal.
“He was so nice to me,” Trump said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “But he's a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him.”
Cruz has also attacked Trump, arguing he’s “nowhere to be found” in meaningful debates about the roughly 11 million people living illegally in the United States.
“As voters you have reasons to doubt the credibility of the promises of a political candidate who discovers the issue after he announces for president,” Cruz said Monday at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire.
He’s also questioned Trump’s conservative credentials -- pointing out donations to Democrats, including $50,000 in 2010 to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former chief of staff for President Obama.
And during the Fox Business Network debate last week, Cruz tried to connect the billionaire businessman to “New York values,” which he characterized as “socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro–gay marriage, focusing around money and the media.”
His apparent attempt to appeal to Iowa conservatives essentially backfired when Trump reminded the audience how New Yorkers responded after 9/11. Cruz responded the next day with a tongue-in-cheek apology “to the millions of New Yorkers who've been let down by liberal politicians in that state.”
Payne called that response a mistake.
“It didn’t help him in any meaningful way. It didn’t make him look transcendental and presidential," he said. "You don’t win that way.”