EASLEY, S.C. — He claims he won't get involved in the food fight. He won't get down in mud. And he most certainly won't throw rocks at other candidates. 

But no matter how Ted Cruz spins it, the U.S. senator from Texas is here: at the center of a blizzard of bluster with two days until the primary in South Carolina, a state living up to its reputation for the nasty, often personal politics Cruz purports to swear off. 

"It’s almost impossible to run a competitive race in South Carolina without it being contentious," Lee Bright, a co-chair of Cruz's state campaign, said in an interview a week ago when the state of play was relatively docile. 

Cruz is now locked in a no-holds-barred battle with billionaire Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, hurling allegations back and forth with a velocity that would have offended the sensibilities Cruz professed as recently as two months ago. Cruz insists he's still playing clean, a claim prompting increased incredulity as the three candidates barrel toward Saturday. 

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

"From the beginning of this campaign, we've taken the high road," Cruz told reporters Wednesday when asked if he was succumbing to the same kind of campaigning he has long eschewed. "I'm not insulting anybody. I am responding with simple facts." 

On Thursday, the battle became especially pitched between Cruz and Rubio, whose campaign cried foul over a Cruz campaign website that paints Rubio as a "Republican Obama" too willing to partner with Democrats. The website, TheRealRubioRecord.com, shows a photo of the Florida senator shaking hands with President Barack Obama that the Rubio campaign claims was digitally altered.

On a conference call with reporters, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a Rubio supporter, said the photo is part of a "pattern of personal destruction" that also includes a fake Facebook page that claimed another Rubio backer, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, no longer supported him. Cruz has denied having anything to do with the page, and while it has not provided any evidence implicating the Texas senator, Rubio's aides believes "where there's smoke, there's fire," in the words of a campaign official on the call. 

"We don’t know whether the Cruz campaign was specifically behind this Facebook post or not," Rubio adviser Todd Harris told reporters. "What we do know is that there is a culture of dishonesty that goes from top to bottom in the Cruz campaign where telling lies is not only tolerated but seems to be encouraged. And so when you create a culture that puts no premium on the truth, this is the result of it."

Cruz's campaign responded to the call with a litany of anti-Rubio zingers, saying the Florida senator is bringing up Facebook pages and "photos he doesn't like" because he cannot defend his record, calling Rubio a hypocrite for engaging in the same kind of aggressive campaigning — including posting anti-Cruz flyers on women's bathroom stalls at a recent rally — and questioning what he has to show his donors after spending $50 million on ads. 

"Is this their 3-5-3 strategy?" Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler asked, mocking Rubio's reported plan to finish third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and first in South Carolina. As for the photo in dispute, Tyler suggested Rubio "can send me a photo he likes of him shaking hands with President Obama, and we'll swap it out."

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Cruz himself took some care to stay out of the crossfire Thursday, especially compared to a day earlier when he called a news conference to extensively dispute charges of dishonesty leveled against him by Rubio and Trump. Addressing a Republican women's club Thursday morning in Greenville, Cruz cited a new national poll that has him edging Trump as a sign that the race is taking a turn for the serious, especially following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and terrorist attacks that have put Americans on edge. 

"It's been six, seven months since anybody has been first nationally other than Donald," Cruz said. "The reason for that sea change is as we get closer to Election Day — look, everyone gets why someone would support Trump. You're ticked off at Washington. Washington's corrupt, and Trump feels like a way to tell Washington, 'Go jump in a lake.' I get that. That makes sense to me. But as voters get closer to Election Day and start looking at the records of candidates, you start examining them more closely, and I think two things are driving this: No. 1, the Supreme Court and then I think the second thing that is driving this is who's prepared to be commander in chief."

What Cruz did not mention is that the survey, released Wednesday evening by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, remains an outlier. A CBS News poll released Thursday morning found Trump back up on Cruz by 17 points nationally, and Cruz continues to register a distant second or third to Trump in South Carolina polls. 

As he campaigned Thursday in the deeply conservative Upstate region, Cruz kept his barbs at rivals to a minimum, most notably steering clear of the remarkable war of words between Pope Francis and Trump over whether the billionaire is a Christian. After ignoring two rounds of shouted questions about the spat earlier Thursday afternoon in Greenville, Cruz briefly stopped on the way into a barbecue restaurant here to satiate the press. 

"Listen, that’s between Donald and the Pope," Cruz said. "I’m not going to get in the middle of that. I’ll leave it to the two of them to work that out." 

Even as Cruz sought to stay above the fray, his campaign was firmly playing offense, seeking to ratchet up expectations for Rubio in the Palmetto State, much like it did for him in New Hampshire. Their reasoning: Why shouldn't Rubio place first here with the backing of all the state's most popular Republicans, including Gov. Nikki Haley, and a campaign with deep ties to the Palmetto State GOP? 

"Right now they’re in a must-win situation with the endorsement of the governor, who only recently said Marco Rubio was pro-amnesty," U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia told reporters on a conference call. "If you think about it, Cruz shouldn’t even be viable and yet Cruz is leading because the people of South Carolina want to make their own choices."

Kingston also pressed a new attack against Rubio, accusing him of exaggerating the extent to which he has worked in the Senate to weaken Obama's signature health care law. Rubio, Kingston said, "can't accuse Ted Cruz of misrepresentation and go claim right off the bat that that was one of the things you did."

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The intense back and forth between Cruz and Rubio has some Republicans worrying that it will be difficult to unite their party once the dust settles in the Palmetto State. Kingston acknowledged the internal strife on the call, saying the GOP is currently in the middle of a "very tough family discussion." It was also a concern shared by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah as he spoke with reporters before Cruz did here, nudging his two Senate colleagues to stay out of the gutter.

"I know those two campaigns are trying" to bring together conservatives, said Lee, who has not made an endorsement in the race but is campaigning with both Cruz and Rubio in South Carolina. "I certainly hope they'll continue to try to stay positive, to talk about what they believe, to talk about what they're for."

Archie Trawick, a Cruz supporter from Lexington, put it more bluntly after a rally Tuesday in Columbia, where the Texas senator offered thinly veiled contrasts with Rubio and Trump on national security and foreign policy. Picking up on the tension, Trawick suggested a solution as the rally let out: "At some point, you just need to put all these guys in a room and say, 'Y'all settle it and somebody come out.'"