Donald Trump goaded a fellow Republican front-runner, Ted Cruz, over his eligibility to be president and professed bafflement that he's not beating him in Iowa polls as a delicate detente between the two became ever more frayed Saturday.
With Trump in Iowa for the first time in the new year, Iowans were seeing a sharp contrast between the grinding Iowa campaign of Cruz — whose five stops Saturday complete a six-day, 28-event bus tour — and the splashy mega-rallies that have become as much Trump's brand as his gilded hotels. Both have attracted overflow crowds: Trump at large halls and stadiums; Cruz in countless coffee shops, convenience stores, churches and diners.
The Texas senator and the billionaire have been quietly circling one another as they work to win over voters in the final stretch leading to the caucuses. The feud escalated Saturday as Trump lashed out at Cruz on multiple fronts before a packed 665-person capacity auditorium in Ottumwa, Iowa, with many more voters crowded into an overflow room.
"The polls are essentially tied. I don't get it," Trump said in the first of several references to Cruz in rambling remarks that spanned an hour.
The billionaire attacked Cruz's apparent shift on ethanol subsidies, the influence of wealthy campaign donors and renewed questions about the Texas senator's Canadian birth.
"He's got to straighten out his problem," Trump said just two minutes into his address. "You can't have that problem and go and be the nominee."
Trump late last year began efforts to undermine Cruz, questioning the senator's religion and accusing him at recent events of stealing his idea to build a wall along the Mexico border. The intensity escalated this past week when Trump questioned whether the Canadian-born Cruz was eligible to be president.
Cruz has been careful not to take on Trump directly even as a few other rivals have savaged him. He chalked up the comments about his eligibility to the political "silly season" and said it's a non-issue.
But he appeared to offer a counterpunch on Friday, when he suggested that Trump wasn't devoting the time and energy to wooing Iowa voters that history shows is needed to win.
"There is an Iowa way of campaigning and deciding caucuses," Cruz told supporters packed into a basement of a pizza restaurant in Decorah. "I believe the only way to compete and win in the state of Iowa is to come and spend the time asking the voters for their support. Looking them in the eye."
He's often asked how he can beat Trump.
"You know we are gonna continue doing exactly what we are doing," he said in a Charles City coffee shop Friday when the question came up again. "You come here, you have the humility to stand before the men and women of this state and answer your questions. And you have the strength and courage of your convictions to say I can defend my record. And I can answer the hard questions."
While Cruz has been traveling by bus, meeting people at one event after the next over jam-packed days, Trump typically holds a single major rally, then departs. While that's a break from tradition, his campaign says he's able to reach far more potential voters than candidates at smaller events can do.
Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said earlier in the week that Trump has a series of stops planned for the next three weeks leading to the caucuses, including multiple overnight stays.
In Ottumwa, Trump himself vowed to return. "I'm going to be here a lot over the next three weeks — a lot," he said.
Yet the usually confident Trump also acknowledged he might not ultimately win the state's leadoff caucuses next month.
"We've got to win Iowa, oh we've got to win it, otherwise we're wasting our time," he said. "If I don't make it I'm going to love you folks just as much."
Iowa voters have been mixed on Trump's approach.
"In Iowa, we need to press the skin," said Theo Boman, an undertaker from Webster City who backs Cruz and came to one of his recent events.
But Lars Johnson, a retired chiropractor who lives near Decorah, Iowa, said he wasn't concerned that Trump was sticking to massive rallies.
"Every person's got his own way of doing things," said Johnson, who lists Trump as his top choice, followed by Cruz. "I don't think Trump would be satisfied with a couple hundred people."
Meanwhile, Cruz has said he has no interest in getting into a war of words with Trump.
"Our friends in the media desperately want Donald and me to engage in a cage match," Cruz said on Friday. "I am not interested in throwing rocks at Donald Trump or any other Republican running for president."
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