Trump Plays the Birther Card on Cruz -- and It’s Working
Policy + Politics

Trump Plays the Birther Card on Cruz -- and It’s Working

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A new poll released on Monday shows Donald Trump edging slightly ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the battle over next month’s Iowa GOP caucuses. The controversial businessman has lately been raising doubts about whether the freshman senator is a “natural born citizen” and thus eligible to serve as president.

A Quinnipiac University survey shows Trump and Cruz locked in the lead among Iowa Republicans likely to turn out for the caucuses, with Trump at 31 percent and Cruz at 29 percent. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is a distant third with 15 percent, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is at just 7 percent.

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A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist University poll released Sunday also shows a very tight race for first place, but with Cruz holding a slight lead over Trump, 28 percent to 24 percent, and Rubio trailing with 13 percent.

In both surveys, the margin of error of the polls is plus or minus 4 percentage points, which means that the race between Trump and Cruz is a statistical dead heat and could go either way in the final days.

Cruz, 44, is reviled on Capitol Hill, where he has repeatedly undercut and insulted GOP leaders and fomented the 2013 government shutdown, but among religious conservatives and anti-establishment Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere, he is a hero who gets high marks. According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, Cruz has a 75 percent favorability rating with 17 percent unfavorable, compared with Trump’s 61/34 favorable/unfavorable score.

On matters of character, Iowa Republicans overwhelmingly give the nod to Cruz. They praise him for his honesty, trustworthiness, personal values and concern for others. But Trump, 69, does better on the questions of who would be best able to handle the economy, combat terrorism and address immigration.

“The Iowa Republican Caucuses are tight as a tick entering the final two weeks of the campaign.  Voters like Sen. Ted Cruz better than Donald Trump and give him much higher scores for honesty, empathy, experience and for sharing their values,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “But they see the New York businessman as better able to handle some key issues. Trump is way ahead on handling the economy and terrorism.”

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Cruz, a darling of evangelical Christians and far right conservatives, has just about everything riding on winning the first in the national presidential caucuses on Feb. 1, and until recently he appeared to be surging in the Hawkeye State. A first-place showing in Iowa would seal the Texan’s reputation as an up and comer who is best positioned to pick up the conservative GOP mantle if Trump falters. And until recently, Cruz was careful not to join other Republican candidates in taking pot shots at Trump, saying he refused to be drawn into intra-party squabbling by the media.

However, Trump has closed the gap between the two men with aggressive campaigning, a stepped-up ad campaign and on-the-ground organization. Just as Cruz was showing growing strength in Iowa thanks to his formidable debating and fundraising skills, Trump began to hammer him. He did it in part by raising questions about his eligibility to be president, casting doubt about his evangelical faith, denouncing Cruz’s calls for ending government assistance to Iowa’s ethanol industry, and even calling him a “bit of a maniac” last month.

During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Trump said the Texas senator was not qualified to be president because he doesn’t have the right temperament and judgement to get things done. “Look at the way he’s dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there like a — you know, frankly like a little bit of a maniac,” Trump said. “You can’t walk into the Senate, and scream, and call people liars, and not be able to cajole and get along with people.”

By repeatedly raising the question of whether the Canadian-born Cruz might lack legal standing to serve as commander in chief, Trump has visibly rattled Cruz and sparked controversy within the media and on the campaign trail. Cruz’s mother is native-born American and his father is a Cuban-born American who obtained U.S. citizenship. Cruz was born while his family was living in Calgary, Canada,  nd he insists there is no doubt about his ability to serve as president.

Related: Republican Cruz pushes back on questions about his U.S. citizenship

Trump, a notorious “birther” who for years questioned whether President Obama was a native-born U.S. citizen, told a large crowd in Reno, Nev., Sunday night that Cruz’s problem is actually a legal one, a "cloud" hanging over his head about whether his Canadian birthplace precludes him from being a "natural born citizen." According to Trump the issue raises "uncertainty" if Cruz were to win the Republican nomination because Democrats would file lawsuits contesting his eligibility to serve as president.

He has “helpfully” suggested a number of times that Cruz seek a declaratory judgment from the courts before the campaign goes on much longer. And Trump assured the crowd that he knows lawsuits. "Does anyone know more about litigation than Trump?" he asked. "I know a lot. I'm like a PhD in litigation."