BEDFORD, Indiana – On a day when his U.S. presidential bid could suffer a mortal blow, Ted Cruz became embroiled in a name-calling contest on Tuesday with Republican front-runner Donald Trump whom he described as “a pathological liar” in one of the most bitter exchanges in the White House campaign.
Cruz, Trump’s main rival, has been counting on a win in Tuesday’s Indiana primary to slow the New York billionaire’s progress toward the nomination.
But polls in recent days have shown Trump opening up a substantial lead in the Midwestern state over the U.S. senator from Texas.
Campaigning in Evansville, Indiana, Cruz sounded deeply frustrated by the bombastic real estate mogul.
“The man cannot tell the truth but he combines it with being a narcissist,” Cruz said of Trump, “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.”
Cruz also termed Trump a “serial philanderer” — likely as part of his strategy to try to siphon the support of evangelical voters from Trump.
Republican voters in Indiana could give Trump an almost unstoppable advantage in his turbulent journey toward the party’s presidential nomination. He holds a double-digit polling lead in the state.
Trump, who frequently refers to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted,” quickly responded to his rival’s attack.
“Over the last week, I have watched Lyin’ Ted become more and more unhinged as he is unable to react under the pressure and stress of losing, in all cases by landslides, the last six primary elections — in fact, coming in last place in all but one of them,” he said in a statement.
Trump has drawn both passionate support and vitriolic condemnation with his stands on immigration and national security — including a call to build a wall along the Mexican border that he says Mexico would pay for and a bid to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Fresh off a sweep of five Northeastern states last week, a Trump win on Tuesday could put him within reach of the 1,237 delegates required to lock up the Republican nomination before the party’s convention in July.
“If we win Indiana, it’s over,” he told a cheering crowd in Terre Haute, Indiana, on the eve of the vote.
Cruz vowed on Monday to “compete to the end” but a loss in Indiana would be particularly crushing for the senator, who has argued that his brand of religious conservatism is a natural draw for heartland Republicans. He won the endorsement of conservative Indiana Governor Mike Pence.
Cruz’s fury on Tuesday was set off by Trump linking the senator’s father to John F. Kennedy’s assassin. The Texan pulled no punches.
“I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump. This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies,” he told reporters.
“He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And … his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.”
For Cruz, Tuesday’s unbridled critique of Trump was his fiercest yet. But it may come far too late. Earlier in the campaign, he refused to bash Trump over such proposals such as Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration.
In December, Cruz vowed that he “won’t get engaged in personal insults and attacks” with Trump and warned that voters are turned off by “a bunch of politicians bickering like school children.”
Trump now has 996 delegates, compared with 565 for Cruz and 153 for Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Another 57 delegates are up for grabs in Indiana, a state that has voted Republican in nine of the last 10 presidential elections.
Top Trump aide Corey Lewandowski told CNN on Tuesday the campaign expected to win more than required number of delegates — 1,300 to 1,400.
Julie Blackwell Chase, a clerk treasurer in the town of Bedford in southern Indiana, said she voted early for Trump in part because she appreciated his willingness to break with conventional politics. “We need new blood,” she said.
Sam Shafer, 33, of Cloverdale, Indiana voted for Cruz on Tuesday, citing the Texas senator’s strong respect for the constitution. Shafer is not a fan of Trump.
“There are no words,” said Shafer, who owns a roofing company. “I don’t care for him.”
Cruz had hoped for smooth sailing in Indiana after he and Kasich reached a “stop-Trump” deal in which Kasich would steer clear of the state while Cruz would do likewise in Oregon and New Mexico.
On the Democratic side, front-runner Hillary Clinton holds a lead of more than 6 percentage points in Indiana over rival Bernie Sanders, according to an average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.
Despite Clinton’s formidable delegate lead, the U.S. senator from Vermont campaigned heavily in Indiana on his message against income inequality and Wall Street excesses.
Jeremy Williamson weathered cold rain in Indianapolis to vote for Sanders, who he thinks should stay in the race to push Clinton to be more progressive. “I want to see the political revolution that everybody’s promising,” he said.
Clinton has already moved on to West Virginia, which holds its primary next week. On Tuesday, she tried to reassure coal workers in that state that her administration would work on their behalf as their industry faces an increasing threat from other sources of energy such as natural gas.
“We’ve got to both move toward a clean energy future … but we also have to remember who turned on the lights and powered the factories and provided the energy that we needed to build our country,” Clinton said in an interview with MSNBC.