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In a First, Ted Cruz Grabs Top Spot in a National Poll

Also, a couple of contested primary races for seats on the Texas Supreme Court heat up further this week as incumbents seek to stave off spirited challenges.

U.S. Sen. and GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz boards the decommissioned battleship USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, South...

A new national poll released Wednesday shows Ted Cruz with a narrow lead over Donald Trump among Republican primary voters. The poll conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal has Cruz up by two points, 28 percent to 26 percent.

This marks the first time that Cruz has held the advantage over Trump in a national poll.

Cruz acknowledged the poll as he took the stage Wednesday evening at a rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

"For the first time in many months, there's a new national frontrunner on the Republican side," Cruz said to cheers, rattling off how he fared in the survey compared to Marco Rubio and Trump. "The sound you're hearing is the sound of screams from Washington, D.C."

The poll results are a significant change from the January numbers in which Trump held a 13-point lead over Cruz — 33 percent to 20 percent. The margin of error on the survey, which polled 400 GOP primary voters, is a relatively high 4.9 percent, though, meaning Cruz’s lead is not statistically significant.

The current survey was conducted Sunday through Tuesday, or entirely after Saturday’s contentious debate in South Carolina.

Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster who helped conduct the survey, told NBC, “So, one poll post-Saturday debate can only reflect there may have been a 'pause' as Republican voters take another look at Trump. This happened earlier this summer and he bounced back stronger. We will have to wait this time and see what voters decide.”

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Cruz on Thursday afternoon took a pass on wading into the remarkable war of words between Pope Francis and Trump, saying he’ll let the two men settle their differences.

The conflict between the billionaire and the pontiff erupted Thursday morning, when Francis suggested Trump was not a Christian for wanting to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump fiercely pushed back, calling it “disgraceful” for a religious leader to cast doubt on someone’s faith. 

“Listen, that’s between Donald and the Pope,” Cruz told reporters, briefly stopping before walking into a barbecue restaurant. "I’m not going to get in the middle of that. I’ll leave it to the two of them to work that out.”

Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, also supports building a border wall.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, meanwhile, will return to the campaign trail for Cruz with a weekend trip to South Carolina planned ahead of Saturday's pivotal primary there. He arrives Friday in the state capital, Columbia, with a media avail scheduled for that afternoon at the Cruz campaign headquarters.

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Also worth noting from Patrick was his decision this week to take to Facebook with an appeal on behalf of Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who faces a potentially tricky primary contest.

Guzman's primary opponent, Joe Pool Jr., doesn't have a good track record in running for office. Guzman's allies are concerned, though, that because of her surname and lack of name recognition, she could get tripped up in a GOP primary election surprise.

Cue Patrick:

"There is another very important race you need to know about, but may not be as aware of as other high profile races or local races where you know the candidate. ... Justice EVA GUZMAN is conservative and highly qualified to be re-elected to our highest Texas Court. Her opponent, who lost overwhelmingly in two other Supreme Court races, has seldom even voted in a Republican primary. However, he is a perennial candidate who keeps hoping he might get lucky. Please vote for EVA GUZMAN and share this post and sent out e-mails to your family and friends so they know she is the selection of conservatives all across Texas from all walks of life."

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The line between "support" and "endorse" is a tricky one to define, but Gov. Greg Abbott's office says they've found it.

He's strongly supporting Justice Debra Lehrmann, the incumbent running against Justice Michael Massengale for Place 3 on the Supreme Court of Texas — so much so that she's included him on her campaign mailers.

Abbott even introduced her at her campaign kick-off event in June. But Abbott has not formally provided an endorsement, according to Abbott spokesman John Wittman.

"I am particularly proud of Justice Lehrmann for the totality of who she is and what she brings to the court," Abbott said in June. She is "flourishing in her position — it is refreshing to see that she is upholding that high standard that we set and we expect for those that serve on the state's highest court."

"She wants your vote, she needs your vote, but to help her get the votes that she needs, she has to have your financial support," Abbott added. "So thank you to those who've given, thank you to those who will continue to give as the campaign progresses, as we work toward reelecting Justice Lehrmann to the Texas Supreme Court."

Wittman confirmed that this did not equate to an endorsement, but declined to elaborate on the distinction. A representative for Lehrmann's campaign, Craig Murphy, said Lehrmann has not asked Abbott for a formal endorsement.

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Lehrmann has edged out her primary challenger in a Houston Bar Association candidate qualification poll.

In the survey, 516 bar association members ranked Lehrmann as "qualified" or "well qualified." Another 461 said Massengale, who is from Houston, is “qualified” or well qualified.”

The survey also allowed bar members to say the candidate was “not qualified.” On that choice, 76 voters declared Lehrmann "not qualified," with Massengale racking up 124 “not qualified” designations.

For full results of the questionnaire, click here. The Houston Bar Association notes that the questionnaire results do not constitute an endorsement by the organization.

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