Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Ted Cruz and John Kasich still aren't really attacking one another, at least by the standards of a remarkably vicious Republican presidential race. But that doesn't mean tensions aren't running high.
It's a proxy war of sorts that has been unfolding since March 1, when the GOP field narrowed to Cruz, Kasich and frontrunner Donald Trump. Since then, more conflict has cropped up between Cruz and Kasich, each vying to be the chief alternative to Trump — a mantle Cruz has largely seized by racking up far more votes and delegates than the Ohio governor, who is pinning his hopes on victory at a contested convention.
Allies of Cruz and Kasich are showing the most appetite for a fight. The main super PACs supporting both candidates went on the air this week in Wisconsin with dueling ads. The latest came Thursday when the pro-Kasich New Day for America announced it was launching an anti-Cruz commercial as "part of a half-million dollar, statewide TV ad buy in Wisconsin."
"If Ted Cruz's mouth is moving, he's lying," a narrator says in the 30-second ad, which adopts Trump's nickname for Cruz — "Lyin' Ted" — and slowly zooms in on a picture of Cruz's face, his nose growing into a noose-like spiral around his neck.
A pro-Cruz super PAC launched the first salvo Tuesday, unveiling a basketball-themed TV ad that portrays Kasich as a spoiler in the GOP race for the White House. Trusted Leadership PAC is airing the spot as part of a $500,000 ad buy on broadcast TV, radio and the Internet through Tuesday in the Badger State.
"The John Kasich playbook: holding for a last second shot at blocking out the grassroots," a narrator says in the commercial, accusing Kasich of having voted "against the Second Amendment" and highlighting his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio. "So given John Kasich's liberal record, it's no surprise his campaign isn't rebounding, because John Kasich won't play in Wisconsin."
Within hours of the ad's release, New Day for America was asking Wisconsin TV stations to take it down, calling it "false, misleading, and deceptive." The spot inaccurately suggests Kasich has received "hundreds of thousands of dollars from George Soros," a prominent supporter of Democratic candidates and causes.
On Thursday night, Trusted Leadership PAC put out a revised version of the ad that says Kasich got money from Soros' "cronies," not Soros himself. Scott Bessent, who once was a top investor at Soros' firm, has given $200,000 to New Day for America, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The super PAC battle is unfolding as the candidates and their campaigns largely hold their fire, especially when it comes to policy-based contrasts. Cruz's campaign has suggested it will not criticize Kasich's record unless he becomes a credible threat, something it views as unlikely. Kasich has voiced disagreement with Cruz on some issues, perhaps most vocally his proposal to patrol Muslim neighborhoods for terrorism activity, but the level of rancor has remained tame overall.
In fact, when Kasich chief strategist John Weaver started using the term "Lyin' Ted" on Twitter in response to the anti-Kasich ad from Trusted Leadership PAC, the Ohio governor distanced himself from the comments at the first opportunity. "He gets a little tweet happy, and I don't like that," Kasich said of Weaver at a CNN town hall Tuesday in Milwaukee.
Cruz has not been shy about voicing his belief that Kasich is playing the role of spoiler, mathematically eliminated from winning the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination before the convention. Cruz's dismissals of Kasich have grown sharper with the Wisconsin primary approaching April 5, and on Thursday morning, Cruz specifically rebutted Kasich's claim that he would be a stronger candidate in the general election.
"You're not electable if you can't win elections. He's lost 30 elections nationwide," Cruz told Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes. "Part of the reason he does well in national polls against Hillary is nobody knows anything about him, and so that doesn't prove very much."
Hopes of any kind of deal between Cruz and Kasich to stop Trump appear to have vanished, if they ever existed. While Kasich's campaign has openly floated the possibility of teaming up with Cruz to deny Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination, the Texas senator and his campaign have flatly rejected the overtures, arguing it is simply not in their self-interest to join forces.
"It makes no sense at all," Cruz said at the CNN town hall. "John Kasich has no path to win it. We are competing to win. We're not competing to stop Trump."
Even if Kasich does not drop out before the convention, there are signs the Cruz campaign is already moving to effectively eliminate him from the competition. In Montana, which holds its primary June 7, Cruz's campaign is seeking to disqualify Kasich by challenging the signatures he submitted to get on the ballot, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
In the nearer term, Kasich continues to threaten Cruz's hopes to maximize his results in Wisconsin, where 42 delegates are up for grabs Tuesday. Cruz plans to spend at least Friday night through Tuesday campaigning in the state, while Kasich is scheduled to return Saturday.