NORTH CHARLESTON (South Carolina) • • With the first vote of America's election a fortnight away, Republican presidential front runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz dispensed with months of niceties and locked horns in a primetime debate on Thursday.
The duo held an extended back-and-forth over conservative values and Mr Trump's allegation that Mr Cruz, a hardline Texas Senator born in Canada, might be legally blocked from becoming president.
With the Feb 1 nomination ballot in Iowa coming into sharp focus, Mr Cruz, who is running a close second to Mr Trump in the state, accused the controversial candidate of panicking.
"Back in September, my friend Donald said he had his lawyers look at this from every which way and there was no issue there," said Mr Cruz. "Now, since September, the Constitution hasn't changed. But the poll numbers have.
"Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa."
Mr Trump shot back: "As you know, Ted, in the last three polls I'm beating you. So you shouldn't misrepresent how well you're doing with the polls."
The debate among seven Republican candidates in South Carolina came as unease grows within the Republican party over Mr Trump's front runner status.
After months of tip-toeing around the front runner, the party establishment appears to be mustering its forces, believing the polarising populist's inflammatory message is more dangerous than the risk of his launching an independent run.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley fired the opening salvo against Mr Trump in her response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Calling on Republicans to ignore the "angriest voices" in their party, she trained her sights as much on Mr Trump as the Democratic president. Mr Trump described Ms Haley as a "friend", but the stinging criticism highlighted the struggle between a rebellious Republican rank-and-file drawn to Mr Trump's outsider populism and the party's conservative establishment.
Mr Cruz accusing Mr Trump of having "New York values" - proabortion, pro-gay rights and pro media - in a clear play for votes in conservative Iowa. "Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan," he joked. Mr Trump, however, described the comment as "very insulting" and defended New Yorkers who bounced back after 9/11.
Mr Cruz was also forced to address a potentially damaging charge that he borrowed money from Wall Street banks while running for the Senate without properly reporting it.
He admitted to making an error of paperwork, and tried to deflect criticism by accusing the New York Times - who first revealed the non-disclosure - of conducting a "hit job".