NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — With two weeks to go until Iowans head to the polls in the first vote of the 2016 primary season, Republican front-runner Donald Trump ramped up his attacks against rival Ted Cruz on Friday, while Jeb Bush scored a key endorsement for his White House bid.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham announced he is backing Jeb Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, praising the former Florida governor's approach to national security.
"I have concluded without any hesitation, any doubt, that Jeb Bush is worthy to be commander-in-chief on day one," Graham said Friday at a joint press conference with Bush.
As South Carolina's senior senator, Graham has been a coveted endorsement for some candidates running for the Republican nomination because he holds clout among establishment Republicans in South Carolina, one of the critical early voting primary states. Bush was initially considered a top contender for the Republican nomination for president, but his campaign eventually lagged behind candidates like Trump and Cruz, who have each positioned themselves as anti-establishment alternatives.
Graham launched his own presidential campaign last summer, but dropped out of the race last month having mustered little support in the polls.
Graham noted that Bush was the lone candidate in Thursday's debate to explicitly reject Trump's continued call to indefinitely ban non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States.
"Donald Trump will damage the ability to grow this party. He will get creamed with Hispanics and young women," Graham said. "Ted Cruz is an ideologue that has no ability, in my view, to bring the country together. So the top two guys, I think, would lose an election we can't afford to lose."
Graham, 60, singled out another former rival, Sen. Marco Rubio, as "great on national security" and predicted Florida's junior senator "will be president one day." But Graham said the 44-year-old isn't ready. "We're looking for the whole package here. At 44, I was not ready to be president of the United States."
From South Carolina, Bush headed to New Hampshire, where he's in need of a strong showing to salvage his candidacy. Asked repeatedly turning a town hall meeting about Trump's impact on the race, Bush called the businessman a talent who "understands why people are angry."
But he urged voters to take their role in picking a president seriously, saying the election is not "a vehicle to have your anger fulfilled."
Meanwhile, Trump kept up his offensive against Cruz Friday, calling him "strident" and labeling his remarks about "New York values" in the GOP debate "disgraceful."
Appearing in an extended interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" from Des Moines, Iowa, Trump said Cruz "hurt himself" in Thursday's debate with his sweeping remarks about the political ideologies of New Yorkers.
Cruz said in the debate, "Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, focus around money and the media."
At the debate, Trump countered with an emotional recounting of his hometown's response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York," he said. "That was a very insulting statement that Ted made."
Asked by MSNBC Friday about the exchange with Cruz, Trump said, "Y'know, he's a good debater, but he's very strident, and a lot of people are not going to like that."
Cruz, who has been dogged by Trump about his U.S. citizenship status, is facing a federal court challenge in his hometown of Houston. A veteran local attorney on Thursday asked the Supreme Court to decide if Cruz's birth to an American mother and Cuban father while they lived in Calgary violates the Constitution's "natural born citizen" requirement.
Cruz argues that because his mother is American, he became a U.S. citizen at birth. But the Supreme Court hasn't previously considered the eligibility question.
Cruz is also facing scrutiny over a revelation that he had failed to disclose in Federal Ethics Commission filings almost $1 million in loans from banks including Goldman Sachs, where his wife works as managing director. Cruz called the story, originally published by The New York Times, a "hit piece."
More than two hours of prime-time argument Thursday presented voters with a sharp contrast to the optimistic vision of America that President Barack Obama painted in his State of the Union address earlier this week. The debate was one of two final opportunities for the candidates to lay out their visions for the country ahead of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.
In Iowa, where polls indicate a narrowing race between Trump and Cruz, Trump released his second television ad on Friday, which marks a significant departure from the first one he released earlier this year. While that ad painted an alarming picture of a country under attack by jihadists and immigrants entering the country illegally, the new ad is much more traditional, featuring footage of Trump speaking at a recent rally in Lowell, Massachusetts.
In the new ad, Trump runs through his central campaign platforms, including his vows to strengthen the country's borders, "fix" it's health care system and the military, and take better care of veterans.
The ad will be airing in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the campaign.
The Trump campaign is also giving out free tickets to the new movie, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi." The campaign has rented a theater in Iowa, for the free screening on Friday. The film depicts the events of the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Several GOP presidential candidates have slammed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for her role before and after the attack in Benghazi, saying she knew from the start it was an act of terrorism.
Bustos reported from Miami. White House Correspondent Julie Pace in Hollis, New Hampshire, and Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.