Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Ted Cruz didn't come close to winning the New Hampshire presidential primary, but the Iowa caucus winner stormed into this third early voting state Wednesday morning with a frontrunner's message: I'm the only one who can beat Donald Trump.
What's more, Cruz said, the other GOP candidates are going about it all wrong.
"You cannot beat Donald Trump running from the left," Cruz told reporters here before a rally. "You see more moderate candidates standing on the debate stage and saying, 'Gosh, Donald, we need more amnesty. Gosh, Donald, don't be so tough on radical Islamic terrorism.' That's not going to work."
"The only way to beat Donald Trump is to highlight the simple truth of his record," Cruz added. "It is not conservative."
Cruz, the junior U.S. senator from Texas, has for weeks envisioned the Palmetto State as the site of a showdown between himself and Trump, both of whom now have wins under their belts heading into the third nominating contest. After coming in first in the Iowa caucuses, Cruz finished a distant third behind Trump on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, though he joked he deserves the same credit Marco Rubio got a week earlier for beating expectations in Iowa.
"I am looking forward to a week of wall-to-wall coverage on Fox News of the impressive third-place finish, which Marco Rubio got," Cruz said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "So I’m sure that’s what we’re going to see on every show on Fox today — the shockingly impressive third-place finish."
Before a rowdy crowd here inside a theater off Myrtle Beach's boardwalk, Cruz struck a more serious tone, saying that Iowa and New Hampshire have fulfilled their historical roles of winnowing the field. "Now it's up to South Carolina to pick a president," Cruz said, adding that Texans and South Carolinians are not unlike in their love of God, guns and the military — and their deep frustrations with President Barack Obama.
Later Wednesday, the GOP field lost two candidates who fared poorly in the Granite State: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. In a statement, Cruz praised Christie, a former prosecutor, for the law enforcement experience he brought to the race and said Fiorina "did a terrific job standing up to Hillary Clinton."
Throughout the day, though, the candidate Cruz most focused on was Trump, emphatically presenting himself as the only White House hopeful who could cut off the billionaire's path to the Oval Office. After the rally in Myrtle Beach, that theory received an uncertain reception from Delma Coleman, an undecided voter who was visiting South Carolina from Georgia — another southern state where Cruz and Trump could find themselves duking it out.
"South Carolina and Nevada will make a difference in who the next president's going to be," Coleman said, declining to say whether he thinks Cruz is the only Trump slayer in the Republican field. "We'll see."
Cruz plans to campaign in South Carolina every day until its Feb. 20 primary. He was scheduled to make a brief trip back to Washington, D.C., later Wednesday for votes in the Senate and return to the state for more campaign events Thursday.
Cruz's wife Heidi filled in for him at a rally Wednesday evening in Spartanburg, where she touted the South Carolina primary as a potential turning point in the race for the White House. She was introduced by the Benham brothers, who became famous after their stands against gay marriage cost them their show on HGTV.
"I firmly believe — no pressure — this is the most important 10 days of this entire election," she said. "If we win South Carolina, we have a game changer in these primaries."