As the front-runners in the Republican presidential campaign vie to portray themselves as outsiders, they are fighting just as fiercely to paint each other as close to the party's establishment.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has highlighted what he calls rival Donald Trump's "New York values" and labeled him a liberal masquerading as a conservative, is now trying to tag Trump as the favorite of the party elite with less than two weeks until the first nominating contest in Iowa on Feb. 1.
"We're seeing the Washington establishment abandoning Marco Rubio and unifying behind Donald Trump," Cruz told reporters in New Hampshire late Wednesday. "And we're seeing conservatives coming together and unifying behind our campaign. And if conservatives unite, we win."
In Iowa, Cruz and Trump are tied, based on several statewide surveys. Cruz's support among evangelical voters -- a key group in the state's GOP caucuses -- has surged in recent weeks, helping him gain on Trump, long the clear front-runner in Iowa polls.
At rally in Las Vegas on Thursday, Trump dismissed Cruz's assertions.
"He’s a nervous wreck. He’s had his moment and he blew it," Trump said to roars and applause from supporters inside a hotel ballroom.
Cruz, who has long reveled in his image as a Washington outsider, often brags that he's disliked by Democrats and Republicans alike -- a fact that Trump said would hurt the country.
"It’s one thing to be like a tough guy, but you've got to be able to get along a little with people,” said Trump. “You can’t be so strident where not one Republican senator supports you."
He added, "We've got to make deals.”
Cruz's attempt to cast Trump as an establishment figure is a long shot.
This week, Trump netted the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who despite being the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee has fashioned herself as a symbol of anti-Washington sentiment.
And Cruz has spent much of his adult life in considerably elite quarters, with stints at Princeton and Harvard and a Supreme Court clerkship followed by time as a White House aide before becoming a U.S. senator.
But perhaps neither is the right choice for the party, establishment or not, said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who recently dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Jeb Bush.
"If you nominate Trump and Cruz, I think you get the same outcome,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday. “Whether it’s death by being shot or poisoning doesn’t really matter. I don’t think the outcome will be substantially different.”
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