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(Associated Press)

Trump, Rubio and Carson Zero In on Cruz’s “Dirty Tricks”

By Election FOXBusiness

Winning the first-in-the-south GOP primary is crucial. South Carolina has historically been the barometer for general elections by selecting the eventual party nominee. As candidates blanket the Palmetto state days before the primary it comes as no surprise that the mudslinging is ramping up on the campaign trail.

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Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have been trading jabs with Texas Senator Ted Cruz this week. The war of words has intensified with Cruz launching negative ads against both GOP rivals and attacking them in the media.

On Thursday, Cruz’s campaign posted an anti-Rubio website on Facebook titled, The REAL Rubio Record, criticizing Rubio’s alleged “deals with Dems” which included a photoshopped image of the Florida senator shaking hands with President Obama.

Rubio's campaign fired back with a TV ad featuring his surrogate, South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy.  In the spot, Gowdy responds to “Ted Cruz’s False Attacks” by shaming the Texas senator’s tactics:

“You’re better than that. You’re running for the highest office in the land. Your campaign ought to be better than that.”

Over the weekend during the GOP debate, Rubio accused Cruz of making up lies and distorting his Senate record. A few days later Trump also called Cruz a liar and said he expected an apology for the inaccurate ads he has been running against the billionaire businessman or he would slap him with a lawsuit.

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Cruz fired back at Rubio and Trump during a press conference:

“It is not being honest or candid for either Marco Rubio or Donald Trump to pretend their records are different from what they are and simply to yell and scream at anyone who points out the words coming out of their own mouths,” said Cruz.

On Wednesday, Cruz received a cease and desist letter from Trump claiming the negative ad Cruz was running against him was defamation. The ad features a 1999 clip of Trump referring to himself as "very pro-choice," which is the opposite position Trump holds today. During a press conference Cruz called Trump’s bluff.

"I have to say to Mr. Trump, you have been threatening frivolous lawsuits for your entire adult life, if you want to file a lawsuit challenging this ad, claiming defamation, file the lawsuit," said Cruz.

The back and forth didn’t stop there. Trump released a statement referencing Cruz’s campaign tactics during the Iowa caucus where his staffers falsely informed voters Ben Carson was no longer running. 

"He is a liar and these ads and statements made by Cruz are clearly desperate moves by a guy who is tanking in the polls,” said Trump.

Since the Iowa caucus incident, Cruz has apologized to Dr. Carson claiming he didn’t know what was going on and Carson has forgiven him. However, The 2016 Committee, a super PAC supporting Ben Carson, isn’t taking any chances on a repeat of Iowa in South Carolina. The PAC has released a new TV ad featuring Norma Banks, an Iowa caucus voter who claims a Cruz campaign supporter told her Ben Carson was quitting the race. In the 30-second spot she talks about the incident saying, “Ted Cruz cheated us.” Carson’s campaign claims they had approximately 40,000 Iowa caucus-goers committed to voting for him but he ended up with less than 20,000 instead.

“More and more facts keep leaking and people like Norma are coming out telling their story.  With South Carolina right around the corner the biggest reason we have that ad out there is to warn the folks in South Carolina that the same thing could happen there if they are not aware,” said Ben Walters, online fundraising manager for The 2016 Committee.

“We are already hearing reports where people that are Carson voters are being manipulated and mislead that Dr. Carson is on the cusp of dropping out, There is a culture within the Cruz campaign that this type of thing is acceptable.”

The 2016 Committee is also asking people to sign a petition that will be sent to the Republican National Committee (RNC) to “end Ted Cruz’s dirty tricks.” It is demanding that the leadership of the RNC addresses, “Ted Cruz's electoral machinations directly, either by public condemnation or by levying an appropriate penalty in a way that reflects the severity of Cruz campaign attempts to divert voters by dishonest means.”

In a new Fox News poll, Trump holds 32% support from likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina. Cruz is in second place with 19% followed by Florida Senator Marco Rubio at 15%. Tied at 9% is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

The South Carolina GOP primary is on Saturday February 20.