SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — The most fascinating relationship in the Republican presidential race is once again on the rocks.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who have maintained a friendly posture throughout most of the 2016 race, now appear increasingly at odds with less than a month until the first nominating contests begin. The growing tension — largely stoked by the billionaire — came to a head Tuesday evening, when The Washington Post published an interview in which Trump said Cruz's Canadian birth could be "very precarious" for the GOP.
"Republicans are going to have to ask themselves the question: ‘Do we want a candidate who could be tied up in court for two years?’" Trump told the newspaper. "That'd be a big problem."
Cruz quickly responded to the interview with a tweet linking to an episode from late in the television life of the show "Happy Days" in which the Fonzie character leaps over a shark on water skis. The episode spawned the phrase "jumping the shark," embedding it in American pop culture to describe the tipping point at which a once-fine undertaking begins its decline.
Shortly after the interview went online, Cruz faced a barrage of questions about Trump here in one of his testiest rounds with the media in recent memory. Cruz refused to respond to Trump's citizenship remarks beyond his tweet and chastised reporters for blowing the back-and-forth out of proportion.
"One of the things the media loves to do is gaze at their navels for hours on end by a tweet from Donald Trump or from me or from anybody else," Cruz. "Who cares?"
"Why do it?" Cruz asked of his jump-the-shark tweet. "Because the best way to respond to this kind of attack is laugh it off and to move on to the issues that matter."
Pressed about why he keeps playing nice with Trump as the billionaire has gotten personal, Cruz insisted all remains well between the two. He also denied their squabbling plays into a Democratic message of GOP disunity, saying it's reporters who are helping Democrats with their obsessive focus on Trump.
The Post interview was not the day's first tension point between the two. On Tuesday morning, a video surfaced of Cruz telling an Iowan that there is a difference between himself and Trump on immigration: Both want to deport everyone in the country illegally, but Trump wants them to be eligible for U.S. citizenship after they return to their home country and Cruz does not.
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski suggested later Tuesday on CNN that Cruz was misrepresenting his position on deportation and said Cruz may want "to make a clarification." Speaking with reporters here, Cruz left no doubt he does not believe he erred in his videotaped remarks and disagrees with Trump on the issue.
"What I have made clear is that under no circumstances should anyone here illegally be granted citizenship. That has been my consistent position," Cruz told reporters. "Enforcing the law means that if someone is deported, they're not eligible to come back here to this country."
Asked if position on deportation was tougher than Trump's, Cruz replied that he would let the billionaire outline his own stance.
"What I'll say is we need to enforce the law," Cruz continued. "We've had seven years of a president who doesn't enforce the law, who picks and chooses the laws he wants to enforce and the laws he doesn't want to enforce."
In recent days, Trump has accused Cruz of trying to replicate his plans, saying the senator is piggybacking on Trump's pledge to build a wall along the southern border. Cruz, who has called his immigration proposals the most aggressive put forward by a GOP candidate, refused to directly address Trump's copycat claim Monday evening while speaking with reporters in Winterset.
Yet as he crisscrossed Iowa on Monday and Tuesday, Cruz made clear he does not plan to cede any territory as the chief opponent of illegal immigration in the GOP field.
"A lot of presidential candidates have suddenly discovered illegal immigration as an issue," he said in an interview from Guthrie Center that aired Monday night on Fox News.
Citizenship and immigration are not the only issues on which Trump has started swinging at Cruz. The billionaire recently revived his questioning of Cruz's appeal to evangelicals because he is of Cuban descent — a place with a small evangelical population, in Trump's telling.
Cruz struck a more playful tone earlier in the day when asked about Trump raising questions about his Christian faith.
"I'd be more than happy to invite Donald to come to church with me," Cruz told reporters before a stop in Cherokee, again declining to criticize Trump any further.
For months, Cruz and Trump maintained a chummy relationship as other GOP rivals assailed the billionaire for his incendiary statements. In the lead-up to the fifth Republican debate in December, the first cracks appeared to emerge in the de facto alliance, with Trump going on the offensive after word got out that Cruz had questioned Trump's judgment behind closed doors. A showdown, however, never materialized — given the opportunity to criticize Cruz at the debate, Trump flatly declined, saying he was satisfied with Cruz's explanation of his private remarks.
Since then, Cruz has overtaken Trump in Iowa, where the billionaire had a monthslong lead in polling. Cruz has not let that gone unmentioned during a six-day, 28-county bus tour of Iowa that began Monday.
"Two weeks ago, every candidate in the field, or just about every candidate in the field, was attacking Donald Trump,” Cruz told reporters as he kicked off the swing Monday morning in Boone. “Now, just about every candidate in the Republican field is attacking me. I guess something has changed.”