Republican candidates for president hammered one another on illegal immigration Friday in a messy free-for-all as each sought to undercut key rivals in the final stretch to Monday’s Iowa caucuses.
Donald Trump was 1,400 miles away in New Hampshire, but the issue he put atop the GOP campaign agenda last summer dominated the race as opponents Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and others dashed across Iowa.
A final flurry of new attack ads on television heightened the unpredictability of the contest, with volleys among multiple candidates risking all manner of unintended consequences.
Cruz, the Texas senator who is battling Trump for the lead in Iowa polls, opened rhetorical fire on Rubio, who has gained ground behind them. Cruz also started running a TV spot portraying the Florida senator as untrustworthy on illegal immigration.
Cruz, whose four stops in small towns put him close to visiting all the state’s 99 counties, said Rubio broke his promise to fight illegal immigration. Cruz accused him of “leading the fight” for "amnesty."
“People are tired of getting burned,” Cruz said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.
Cruz also criticized Trump, who – at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H. – called the Texan an “anchor baby” born in Canada.
Cruz declined to respond to the insult, but suggested Trump had disrespected Iowans by skipping Thursday’s debate in Des Moines in a high-drama spat with the event host, Fox News.
“I think that damaged him significantly,” Cruz said.
Trump, whose sons Eric and Donald Jr. donned orange vests for a pheasant hunt in Iowa on Friday with CNN anchor Jake Tapper, plans to campaign Saturday in Dubuque, Clinton and Davenport on the east end of Iowa, then on Sunday in Council Bluffs and Sioux City on the western end.
In New Hampshire, he said he had no regrets about missing the debate.
“I did something that was very risky,” he said. “And I think it turned out great, because I'm on the front page of every paper.”
Trump appeared happy that Cruz “really got pummeled” by several opponents, an assault that continued Friday in Iowa. Rubio, for one, accused Cruz of pandering on immigration, ethanol, defense spending and China policy.
“The list is endless,” Rubio told reporters after a rally here in Muscatine. “I know we’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with a candidate who will say or do anything to gain a vote or raise money.”
A strong performance for Rubio in Iowa would produce momentum for the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary and other contests beyond, hence Cruz’s new ad assault.
“You don’t spend money attacking a candidate you’re not concerned about,” said Rubio, who also tried to tamp down expectations.
“Obviously, Ted is the front-runner here,” he said. “He’s spent a lot of time and money and has 10,000 volunteers working on his behalf on the ground. We saw his campaign over a month ago talking about how they were going to win comfortably. We’re not going to make those kind of predictions.”
Rubio and Cruz both took hits Friday from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who acknowledged he’d shifted to more conservative stands on abortion and guns and faulted both senators for not admitting to a similar shift on illegal immigration.
Rubio “did not tell the truth” on the subject in the debate, said Christie, who made stops in Johnston, Pella, Ottumwa, Burlington and Davenport on Friday.
“He thinks he's so smooth about it, and people won't notice because he doesn't answer the question,” Christie told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “But people understand that, and they get it, and over the course of time we'll make sure they get it about Sen. Rubio.”
Like Christie, Bush aimed his harshest comments at Rubio as he stumped in Carroll, Sioux City and Sioux Center in rural western Iowa.
As Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, ran a TV ad accusing Rubio of missing too many Senate votes and abusing a Florida GOP credit card, the former Florida governor himself assailed Rubio for abandoning a bipartisan bill he had cosponsored to offer a pathway to citizenship to immigrants in the country illegally.
“He backed away when the popularity kind of waned,” Bush told a New Hampshire radio program from Iowa.
Bush also brushed off the daily taunts he has been getting from Trump.
“I’ve got my big-boy pants on,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me a bit.”
Mehta reported from Muscatine, Finnegan from Des Moines and Memoli from Nashua.
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