WHITEFIELD, New Hampshire — Ted Cruz challenged Donald Trump directly by name for the first time on the campaign trail — despite his refusal for months to engage in a “cage match” with the GOP frontrunner.
“There are many people that are observing this race nationally [who say it] is coming more and more down to a two-man race between me and Donald Trump,” Cruz said. “And we’re at the phase in the race where the voters are beginning to look very, very carefully at the records of the candidates.”
Cruz has consistently avoided attacking or questioning Trump.
But on Monday night, Cruz willingly highlighted Trump’s record, drawing contrasts with him for the first time on the campaign trail.
Cruz rehashed the debate in 2013 over the Senate’s comprehensive immigration measure and then asked the crowd of 100 to reflect on Trump’s whereabouts during the conservative backlash.
“We were on the verge of losing this fight and 12 million people here illegally being granted amnesty,” Cruz said. “And yet, when that fight was being fought, Donald was nowhere to be found.”
He then told the voters they have “reason to doubt the credibility” of a candidate who takes these hardline positions only after announcing his candidacy.
Cruz also highlighted TARP, the 2008 bank bailout, as well as the stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009.
“On both of those, I opposed it,” Cruz stated. “On both of those, Mr. Trump supported them.”
He then squared up an attack on eminent domain, suggesting Trump “supports using government power to seize private people’s homes to give them to giant corporations to, say, hypothetically build a casino.”
Cruz still says he has “no intention of reciprocating” the “insults” launched by Trump.
“I will continue to sing his praises personally,” Cruz added. “But I do think policy difference are fair game.”
Earlier Monday, Cruz also noted Trump’s past support for universal healthcare coverage.
Where other GOP candidates have faltered and fallen after challenging Trump, Cruz’s approach — policy-driven and meticulously-worded — could be an effective disarming of his rival just two weeks before the Iowa caucus.
Rich Kardell, a physician who drove an hour for the event from Gorham with his two sons, arrived to the event wavering between voting for Trump and Cruz. After the event, Kardell’s perception had changed.
“Donald has kind of gone both ways and changed his opinion,” Kardell said. “Everybody changes their opinion, but it seems that Donald has different reasons for changing his opinion.”
Kardell suggested Cruz “addressed Donald appropriately” and led him to question what would “stop [Trump] from changing his line later.”
And Steve Jesseman, a campground owner from Lisbon, refused to rule Trump out for his vote after Cruz’s Monday night event, but he said he is now “closer to voting for Cruz than when I got here.”
“[Cruz] provided the contrasts, but he did it nicely,” Jesseman said. “He didn’t do it cruelly.”
Over the last several days, Trump hurled personal attacks at Cruz, calling the Texas senator “bitter” and “testy” and “nasty.”
This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com