If the Marco Rubio-Ted Cruz war was already a hot fight – it just went nuclear.
Rubio campaign senior strategist Todd Harris held a seven-minute gaggle with reporters after a rally in Greenville on Thursday where he handed out printouts of a website he said was put up by the Cruz campaign and featured what he called a “photoshopped” image of Rubio.
“They photoshopped Marco’s face onto somebody else,” Harris said. “This is how phony and deceitful the Cruz campaign has become.”
The Cruz-funded website, TheRealRubioRecord.com, features the photo on a page about the “Rubio-Obama Trade Pact,” which accuses Rubio of casting the crucial vote to pass the Trade Promotion Authority bill in the Senate to give President Barack Obama authority to negotiate trade deals more quickly.
The vote was bipartisan, passing 60-37. Cruz was one of five Republicans who voted against it.
The page includes an image of what appears to be Rubio shaking hands with Obama.
The Cruz campaign initially did not deny that the picture is photo-shopped.
“If Rubio has a better picture of him shaking hands with Barack Obama I’m happy to swap it out,” Rick Tyler, a Cruz campaign spokesman, told CNN. “Two days before presidential primary in South Carolina, they want to talk about a picture we used.”
A short while later, the Cruz campaign attempted to characterize the photo as an “illustration.”
“It is simply an illustration, I don’t think anyone who looked at that website believes it is a real picture of them shaking hands,” said a Cruz campaign adviser, speaking on background in order to speak more freely. “It’s symbolism.”
It’s the latest example that there is no love lost between the two campaigns, who are vying to best each other in South Carolina to keep their momentum toward the GOP presidential nomination.
Tyler asserted that the Rubio campaign has also used photo-shopped images of their candidate.
“Every photo they use of Ted Cruz is photo-shopped,” he said, citing a photo used of Cruz standing in front of a jet.
Still, Rubio’s Harris said Cruz had flip-flopped on the trade bill
“There is a culture of dishonesty from top-to-bottom in the Ted Cruz campaign,” he said, adding the “completely invented photo” is further evidence.
The latest CNN/ORC South Carolina GOP poll shows Cruz in second place with 22% support and Rubio in third with 14% support. Both men trail GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has 38% support.
Cruz has derided Rubio for “screaming liar” when Cruz brings up his record, including on immigration. Rubio has said “lies” are exactly what Cruz has been spreading.
“I am confident that our campaign would not use a photo that is not authentic,” Tyler said at first, without having seen the disputed photo. “They are trying to win by using fear, smear and lies.”
But Harris said Cruz’s camp is “desperate” and held a press conference Wednesday that was “both unhinged and unpresidential.”
CNN’s Dana Bash, Gloria Borger and Abigail Crutchfield contributed to this report.