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Trailing Trump in Iowa, Cruz Presses Closing Arguments

Staring down a close finish in the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz on Saturday downplayed a key poll showing him trailing Donald Trump in the state's Republican presidential race.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas fires up a crowd of evangelicals in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2016, on the eve of the final Republican debate before the caucuses.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Staring down a close finish in the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz on Saturday downplayed a key poll showing him trailing Donald Trump while pressing his closing arguments with less than two days until the first-in-the-nation nominating contest. 

The U.S. senator from Texas expressed no qualms with a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register survey that found Trump beating him by 5 points in the state's Republican presidential race, saying it shows how far he has come in the race for the White House. 

"I am thrilled where we are right now," Cruz told reporters here before a rally. "If you had told me a year ago that two days out from the Iowa caucuses we would he neck-and-neck, effectively tied for first place, in the state of Iowa, I would’ve been thrilled."

Trump led the poll with the support of 28 percent of likely GOP caucus goers. Cruz had 23 percent, while U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida came in third with 15 percent.

The survey, the last major poll before the Monday caucuses, was a reversal from two weeks ago, when Cruz was besting Trump by 3 points in the same poll. Cruz's lead was even wider a month ago, when he was up on Trump by 10 points. 

Cruz, however, did not spend much time talking about the poll here at Western Iowa Technical Community College, quickly moving on to extended criticism of his two closest competitors in the state, Trump and Rubio. 

"A vote for Marco Rubio is a vote for amnesty, and a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Obamacare," Cruz told reporters, alluding to positions the two candidates have had on immigration and health care that are out of step with the GOP base.

Cruz especially needled Trump, whom he had challenged to a one-on-one debate at 8 p.m. Saturday at in this northwestern Iowa city. The dare had grown out of Trump's decision to skip the seventh Republican debate Tuesday in Des Moines. 

"I do wonder, in an hour, if Donald Trump is going to accept my invitation," Cruz told reporters at about 7 p.m. "To date, Donald has not accepted the invitation, but in the Iowa debate, they said they didn't know up until the minute of the debate whether he'd show up. So we will maintain a chair for him, and I hope perhaps Donald will join us."

Cruz went on to suggest that maybe one of his guests at the rally, reality TV star Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" fame, could lure Trump into a one-on-one debate with a duck call. 

Robertson took the cue later Saturday night during the rally, leading the crowd in a duck call using whistles distributed to attendees.

As expected, Trump never showed up, a fact Cruz was happy to point out after he took the stage.

"There was supposed to be another person here tonight," Cruz said, reiterating his theory the billionaire is trying to avoid scrutiny of his record — and adding that he does not blame his foe for his absence. "I recognize that those who are ducking debates might be nervous around the Robertson clan." 

The rally, a two-hour affair that ended another grueling day of barnstorming Iowa for Cruz, came less than 48 hours before the caucuses. Before he spoke, Cruz collected the endorsement of the Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund, a super PAC affiliated with what is billed as the largest tea party group in the country.

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz