*Editor's note: This story was updated Dec. 12 with a statement from Keep the Promise I.
Billionaire Donald Trump on Friday went on the offensive against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, putting an end to the most closely watched alliance in the GOP race for the White House.
Speaking in Iowa, Trump launched his first attack on Cruz by zeroing in on the senator's opposition to ethanol standards, an issue dear to Iowan hearts.
"He’s got to come a long way because he’s right now for the oil," Trump said at a rally in Des Moines. "I understand it. Oil pays him a lot of money. He’s got to be for oil, right? The oil companies give him a lot of money, but I’m with you.”
Later in the rally, Trump suggested Cruz's stance on ethanol subsidies could be a stumbling block in the first-in-the-country caucus state, where the senator has been rising in the polls.
"If Ted Cruz is against ethanol, how does he win in Iowa? Because that’s very anti-Iowa," Trump said.
Trump's criticism of Cruz on ethanol echoes that of America's Renewable Future, an advocacy group in Iowa that has been hammering Cruz for his opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard. Cruz's campaign has countered that he opposes all energy subsidies, not just those that favor ethanol producers but also ones that benefit the oil industry.
Trump also seemed to question Cruz's appeal to evangelicals in Iowa, speculating he may not be able to relate to the influential voting bloc due to his Cuban heritage. Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father.
"We’re doing really well with the evangelicals," Trump said. "And by the way, I do like Ted Cruz, but not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba in all fairness. It’s true. Not a lot come out. But I like him nevertheless."
Cruz's campaign had no comment on Trump's criticism, but a super PAC backing Cruz, Keep the Promise I, said in a one-sentence statement, "We knew when Trump criticized Cruz it would not be substantive, but we hoped it would be coherent."
Trump's remarks, though not as harsh as he has been on other rivals, capped a day in which his relationship with Cruz appeared more fraught than ever. The billionaire started off the day with a couple of tweets reacting to a report a day earlier that Cruz had raised questions about his "judgment" at a fundraiser.
"Looks like [Cruz] is getting ready to attack. I am leading by so much he must. I hope so, he will fall like all others. Will be easy!" Trump wrote in a tweet. In a subsequent tweet, he said, "[Cruz] should not make statements behind closed doors to his bosses, he should bring them out into the open - more fun that way!"
Later Friday morning, Cruz sought to calm the waters with his own tweet — a message that Trump later retweeted and spoke favorably of at the rally. Cruz had written: "The Establishment's only hope: Trump & me in a cage match. Sorry to disappoint -- [Trump] is terrific. #DealWithIt"
For months, Cruz has carefully avoided criticizing Trump in hopes of not alienating his supporters if he drops out of the presidential race. That strategy has been tested as Cruz's candidacy gains traction, especially in Iowa, where a survey released Tuesday found Cruz beating Trump for the first time.
In Des Moines, Trump dismissed the poll, done by Monmouth University, as "just one little outlier."
"There was one poll — Monmouth. Monmouth!" Trump said. "I had never even heard — what the hell is Monmouth? What is Monmouth? Explain it. I don’t like Monmouth. You know why I don’t like it? Because they always treat me badly also. I only like polls that treat me well."
Yet even as he cast doubt on the survey, Trump appeared to acknowledge Cruz was gaining on him, saying it "seems like a two-person race right now."
While Trump introduced new attacks against Cruz on Friday night, he also offered some of his usual words of praise — if in a backhanded manner. Asked by an audience member if he would let Cruz serve in a Trump administration, the billionaire replied, "We would certainly have things in mind for Ted."