South Carolina tag team smackdown: Cruz, Trump, Rubio

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the Seneca Family Restaurant on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Seneca, S.C.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the Seneca Family Restaurant on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Seneca, S.C. AP

And in this corner . . . Ted Cruz, feeling the verbal punches of Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, fiercely pushed back on both of them Wednesday as the top three contestants vie against one another in Saturday’s pivotal South Carolina Republican primary.

Cruz, a Texas senator, was very much on edge during a hastily called news conference in Seneca, S.C., on Wednesday. Angry about being called a liar, he denied allegations of dirty tricks made by the other campaigns and called out Trump for sending him a cease and desist letter over a TV ad that the New York billionaire said defamed him.

“I have to say to Mr. Trump, you have been threatening frivolous lawsuits for your entire adult life,” Cruz said. “If you want to file a lawsuit challenging this ad, claiming defamation, file the lawsuit.”

Cruz also hotly denied that his campaign had been involved in a false Facebook post that had Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., withdrawing his endorsement of Rubio. Gowdy remains a supporter.

Cruz, who has been a solid second in South Carolina behind front-runner Trump, may be feeling squeezed, especially in the Palmetto State, where the majority evangelical Republican voters are supporting Trump over Cruz by 2 to 1. Cruz won Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucuses, coming from behind to beat Trump, on the strength of evangelical support.

And Rubio, a Florida senator, has been nipping at Cruz’s heels in South Carolina – Wednesday he got the coveted endorsement of the state’s Gov. Nikki Haley. Rubio is now within striking distance of the Texan, with 16.5 percent of the average of Real Clear Politics polls to Cruz’s 16.8 percent. Trump stands at 34.3 percent.

Of course, Cruz’s Rottweiller style – taunting Trump to sue him and increasing the number of times his controversial ad is running – may be resonating among the electorate, as well. NBC News reported that Cruz is leading in its national poll, with 28 percent, beating Trump’s 26 percent.

The ad, called “Supreme Trust,” about trusting the choice for a Supreme Court vacancy, uses clips from a 1999 interview Trump did with the late Tim Russert in which the developer, then considering a White House run, declared himself to be “pro-choice.” Trump says he has changed and now is “pro-life.”

“Mr. Trump’s implausible claim that he is pro-life doesn’t meet a reality test,” said Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler. “His words and actions simply cannot be reconciled. Mr. Trump last week said that Planned Parenthood does do wonderful things, but supporting Planned Parenthood is incompatible with holding the pro-life position Mr. Trump is now claiming.”

Rubio continued to criticize Cruz for “saying anything to get elected,” including, he said, lying about the Florida senator’s record on immigration. Rubio supported a comprehensive immigration bill with a path to citizenship but he denies Cruz’s barbed characterization of it as “amnesty.” An ad from a pro-Cruz super political action committee was pulled by stations in South Carolina.

“Voters will reject Sen. Cruz’s campaign of personal insult, deceptions, push polls and ads so misleading they can’t be aired,” said Rubio in a statement issued late in the afternoon.

Rubio media adviser Todd Harris said on Twitter that Cruz was “unhinged and unpresidential.”