CHAPIN, S.C. — A three-way feud among the Republicans' leading White House contenders has escalated, with Republican Ted Cruz daring Donald Trump to sue him and dismissing Marco Rubio's charges of dishonesty just days before South Carolina's high-stakes primary.
Yet it was Rubio who may have scored the Wednesday's biggest win as he secured the coveted endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. The popular governor said she was tasked with identifying the best candidate as she surveyed the crowded Republican field.
"If we elect Marco Rubio, every day will be a great day in America," she said alongside the Florida senator during an evening rally in suburban Columbia.
Haley's endorsement did little to quiet the intensifying clash between Cruz, Trump and Rubio over alleged ethical violations in the days leading up to Saturday's South Carolina contest.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders face off during the Nevada caucuses on Saturday. The South Carolina primary for them is on Feb. 27.
Cruz has been trying to beat back charges of dishonesty from Trump and Rubio for weeks. He shifted his defence to the next level during an afternoon news conference that highlighted his extensive legal training.
"You have been threatening frivolous lawsuits for your entire adult life," said Cruz, a Harvard Law School graduate who served as Texas' top lawyer, speaking directly to Trump. "Even in the annals of frivolous lawsuits, this takes the cake."
Trump threatened earlier in the week to bring a defamation lawsuit against Cruz over a television ad that attacks the Republican front-runner's conservative bona fides. Specifically, the ad features footage of the billionaire businessman in a 1999 interview supporting abortion rights. Trump now says he opposes abortion.
Trump's attorney sent Cruz a letter Tuesday charging the ad was "replete with outright lies, false, defamatory and destructive statements" and saying Cruz could be held liable for damages if it's not taken down.
Cruz on Wednesday said a lawsuit against the ad has no chance, and said he would like to take Trump's deposition himself. He also announced plans to run the contested ad more frequently.
The prospective legal battle marks another extraordinary step in the turbulent 2016 Republican primary season.
Polls suggest Trump continues to hold a big lead in South Carolina and in upcoming states, as Cruz works to rally the Republican Party's most conservative wing and Rubio tries to consolidate mainstream Republicans behind his candidacy. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich continue to battle for a spot at the table, while retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson struggles for relevancy.
Haley's endorsement was a major setback for Bush in particular, who told NBC News on Monday that "she is the probably the most meaningful endorsement if there is" one in the state.
Suddenly backed by Haley, Rubio continued his assault against Cruz's campaign tactics. He accused Cruz supporters of using "push polls" and creating a fake Facebook page wrongly claiming that South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy had switched his endorsement from the Florida senator to Cruz.
"It's just a pattern of people around his campaign that have continuously done things like that," Rubio said as he campaigned in Mount Pleasant.
Cruz denied being involved with anything untoward and called for anyone with evidence to come forward.
Also on Wednesday, Trump said that if elected president, any person he nominates for Supreme Court justice will have to pledge to uphold a landmark gun rights case. Trump said during a forum on MSNBC that he would make upholding the Heller decision a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. The case determined that Americans have the right to keep and bear arms for self defence.
Scott Bauer And Steve Peoples, The Associated Press