MANCHESTER, N.H. — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz nearly made it through this last debate before the New Hampshire primary Saturday evening without tangling with his top rival for the GOP nomination, real estate magnate Donald Trump.
Trump waited until the final moments of the Republican primary debate - at a point when it was too late for Cruz to respond — to pounce.
The attack came during the debate's closing remarks, after Cruz had just vaunted his first-place finish in Iowa five days earlier. The Texas senator pointed to it as a moment of political victory meeting political integrity, pointing to his opposition to a favorite Iowa subsidy, ethanol, and describing the stance as "political suicide."
"The people of Iowa put country and our children above the cronyism and corporate welfare," he said. "We can turn this country around if we get back to the Constitution, and I will always stand with the American people against the bipartisan corruption of Washington."
Trump was quick to undercut Cruz's victory lap.
"That's because he got Ben Carson's votes, by the way, but we won't say that," Trump said in his own closing statement.
The debate then wrapped, depriving Cruz of the chance to respond in real time.
The brief moment was a metaphor for the race at the moment: Time is running out for these candidates to make their cases for themselves and against their rivals. New Hampshire voters head to the polls on Tuesday. And history suggests there is no moment with more urgency during the primary, as several campaigns of the seven candidates may not survive the coming week.
The Trump remark referenced a prolonged drama between Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson that began with the evening of the Iowa caucuses and had already come up again earlier that evening. Earlier in the week, Carson had accused Cruz of campaign malfeasance for spreading a story to Carson’s supporters in Iowa that their candidate was on the verge of dropping out of the race as the caucuses were taking place. Cruz had apologized twice, once directly to Carson earlier in Saturday's debate. Carson implied he was not impressed with Cruz’s face-to-face apology.
Despite Trump's last-minute attack on Cruz's ethics, the brash billionaire and Cruz avoided the moderators’ invitations to directly confront one another for most of the debate.
Instead, Trump focused his punches on one of his favorite targets, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and on an audience he contended preferred Bush.
Besides Trump’s pithy comment at Cruz, the most contentious fire of the evening came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who directed his criticism at Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
The survival of Christie’s campaign is on the line Tuesday. He staked his political future on the Granite State, but recent New Hampshire polling showed Rubio benefiting from his strong third-place finish in Iowa.
"You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable," Christie said to Rubio. "You just simply haven't."
The New Jersey governor repeatedly ripped the Floridian for staying too close to his campaign messaging. Christie called such commentary a "memorized 30-second speech."
"It gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points," he added.