DANE (Wisconsin•) • In the opening salvos of a two-week fight for Wisconsin, Senator Ted Cruz called Republican rival Donald Trump a coward after the billionaire threatened to "spill the beans" on the lawmaker's wife.
Mr Cruz said before touring a metal fabrication plant in Dane on Thursday: "It is not easy to tick me off. I don't get angry often. But you mess with my kids, you mess with my wife - that will do it every time. Donald, you are a snivelling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone."
In the race to amass the 1,247 delegates needed to secure the party's nomination, Mr Trump leads Mr Cruz by a margin of 739 to 465. Wisconsin, which holds its primary on April 5, will award 42 delegates, and a new Emerson College poll shows Mr Cruz leading Mr Trump there by a single point, with Ohio Governor John Kasich trailing both men by double digits.
The race turned personal on Wednesday when a super PAC (political action committee) backing Mr Cruz used a photo of Mr Trump's wife Melania naked in a magazine spread, prompting a sharp response from the front runner. Mr Trump said in a tweet: "Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a GQ shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!"
Mr Trump has refused to specify what information he was referring to, though he later tweeted an unflattering picture of Mrs Heidi Cruz juxtaposed with one of his wife.
LEAVE HER ALONE
Donald, you are a snivelling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone. ''
MR TED CRUZ
WATCH OUT, OR ELSE
Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife! ''
MR DONALD TRUMP
For Mr Trump, the dust-up resurrected concerns over his attitudes and statements towards women.
In Wisconsin, Mr Cruz said the latest shots at his wife belied those views. "Donald does seem to have an issue with women," Mr Cruz said. "Donald doesn't like strong women. They scare Donald."
Mr Trump had entered the gutter with the attack, Mr Cruz argued, though when asked if he still intends to support him if he gets the nomination, the Texan deflected by saying he planned to win.
He pointed to Tuesday's victory in Utah's caucuses, saying it frightened Mr Trump.
Ms Kay Nightengale, a retired union educator who attended Mr Cruz's rally, said the attacks detracted from more serious matters such as economic plans and a response to the terror attacks in Brussels.
She also sided with Mr Cruz.
"It was a political action committee that attacked and it had nothing to do with him," said Ms Nightengale. "What these two men need to stop doing is attacking each other and go for Hillary (Clinton)."
Mrs Clinton, the Democratic front runner, offered a rebuke on Thursday of the anti-Muslim rhetoric from Mr Trump and Mr Cruz. "We like to say in my campaign that love trumps hate," she said. She pushed back against Mr Cruz's calls for increased policing of Muslim neighbourhoods.