MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — It had all the trappings: an early-state cattle call two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, a revved-up Tea Party audience and back-to-back speaking slots by the two leading — and clashing — candidates.
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump largely avoided taking direct blows in their speeches here Saturday, shopping short of what might have been a blockbuster afternoon. Even so, the tension between the two is more palpable than ever as their once-sycophantic relationship takes center stage in the Republican race for the White House — a dissolution that was on full display as Cruz traversed the Palmetto State over the past four days.
The South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention was relatively tame in spite of Trump's efforts. Toward the end of his nearly 45-minute speech, he began to attack Cruz as too cozy with campaign donors, only to face loud boos from a room that seemed packed with just as many Cruz supporters as Trump supporters.
"Excuse me?" Trump said, taking note of the boos before raising reports that Cruz had failed to properly disclose loans during his Senate campaign. "He's got bank loans from Goldman Sachs. He's got loans from Citibank. And then he acts like Robin Hood? Say whatever you want. It doesn't work that way."
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Yet the harsh reaction persisted and Trump quickly wound down his speech, marking a largely anticlimactic end to the afternoon. As recently as last month, Trump's jab at Cruz, whom the political wild card had spared for months, would have been breaking news, but on Saturday it was just another chapter in the collapse of their chummy public relationship.
In a speech two hours earlier, Cruz provided an advanced rebuttal of sorts to Trump's appearance, warning the assembled Tea Partiers against getting "burned again" by unprincipled politicians vying for their votes. In recent days, Cruz has increasingly alluded to Trump as a New York liberal parading as a rock-solid conservative.
"How many of us have had the experience where we have a politician, they come up, they campaign and they sound great?" Cruz asked the audience. "They say everything we want to hear, and we vote for them. And they go to Washington and they don’t do what they say."
Cruz laid out seven conservative priorities on which he believes candidates should be judged: their opposition to President Barack Obama's health-care reform law, gun control, "amnesty" for people in the country illegally, special treatment for big corporations, gay marriage, Planned Parenthood and Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. He implored the crowd to beware of false prophets — "no matter how much you like them when they're campaigning" — a perceived reference to Trump's wild ride of a run.
At the convention, however, Cruz did not go as far as he had before a national security forum Saturday morning in Fort Mill, where he flatly told reporters Trump was a fake conservative — a remarkable denouncement given the senator's months-long refusal to criticize the billionaire. Trump's record, Cruz said, "does not match what he says as a candidate."
Informed of Cruz's statement after his speech in Myrtle Beach, Trump kept the focus on the undisclosed loans. "He's got to report his financials properly," Trump told The Texas Tribune, repeating himself for emphasis as he walked away.
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Cruz now describes the contest as a two-man race between himself and Trump, a characterization with which the billionaire has not disagreed. Cruz appears to have an edge over Trump in the first early voting state, Iowa — though the margin has narrowed in recent polls — while Trump has a wide lead in the next state in the nominating process, New Hampshire.
At a rally Friday in Tigerville, Cruz suggested the third early voting state, South Carolina, could prove decisive in a battle with Trump.
“In most prior elections, Iowa and New Hampshire split. They go for different candidates," Cruz said. "South Carolina has historically has had the role of picking presidents.”
Trump has held a double-digit lead in South Carolina for most of the time since he entered the race, and although Cruz has been gaining, he remains a distant second. Yet the field is not entirely settled, according to Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who cautioned that "what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire to going to very much temper and impact whether or not" Trump stays as the frontrunner in South Carolina.
"People take it as an inevitability that Trump is the lead horse and then conservatives are looking for, 'OK, if I'm not a Trump supporter, then who's my guy?'" Sanford said as he left a town hall for Cruz on Wednesday in Dorchester. "They seem to be, at this point, at some level, in South Carolina coalescing around Cruz."
Whatever happens, there were signs Saturday that voters in the Palmetto State had little appetite for a Cruz-Trump showdown. After Trump's speech at the convention, attendees who were sympathetic to both candidates expressed some unease with the prospect of the two anti-establishment favorites duking it out.
"I don't like hearing them give each other a hard time," said Ann Blake-Smith, a retiree from Myrtle Beach who has not yet settled on a candidate. "I know it's the male thing to do," she added, but said such intra-party squabbling distracts from the goal of beating Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
"The Republicans are doing the Democrats' work" when they fight among themselves, added Bill Strydesky, an artist from Myrtle Beach supporting Trump.
Cruz's appearance here marked the end of a four-day, five-stop swing through South Carolina anchored by the sixth Republican debate Thursday in North Charleston. The senator heads next to New Hampshire, where he is set to begin a five-day, 28-stop bus tour of the state on Sunday.