MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Donald Trump ran afoul of some conservative activists Saturday with an attack on Republican presidential rival Ted Cruz for his failure to disclose certain bank loans during his 2012 Senate bid.
"You give a campaign contribution to Ted Cruz, you get whatever the hell you want," Trump told a tea party gathering in the early voting state of South Carolina.
By the time Trump added that he thinks Cruz is "a nice guy," loud boos had commenced among the hundreds of attendees divided almost exclusively between the two leading GOP contenders.
In front of the same audience a few hours earlier, Cruz opted not to mention Trump at all, apparently intent on de-escalating their feud as they pursue for the same frustrated, anti-establishment voters who have defined the GOP campaign thus far.
Cruz instead urged voters to examine candidates' records on a range of issues dear to conservatives, among them repealing the Affordable Care Act, fighting abortion and same-sex marriage, and opposing bank bailouts like the one Congress adopted in 2008.
"Don't listen to the words on the campaign trail," Cruz said. "Look to action."
It was a more subtle reminder of Trump's shifts on a number of issues: He previously backed abortion rights and same-sex marriage,
Trump appeared ready to follow Cruz's lead Saturday. He notably avoided any mention of Cruz's Canadian birth, despite suggesting in recent weeks that the foreign-born son of an American mother and Cuban father is not eligible to serve as president. And he saved his barbs until the end of a meandering 45-minute speech.
Still, Trump's official Twitter feed blasted Cruz throughout Saturday, as he sought to capitalize on a pair of New York Times reports detailing Cruz's failure to explain fully two loans from Citibank and Goldman Sachs that he now says he used to help finance his 2012 Senate campaign.
Cruz calls it a "paperwork error" that he included the loans only on Senate personal financial disclosures, but not on the Federal Election Commission filings that typically get more attention before voters cast ballots. The Senate forms do not state explicitly that the money was used on his campaign.
At the tea party event, Cruz railed against "crony capitalism" and corporate titans in league with big government. In New Hampshire earlier Saturday, Trump called Cruz a "great hypocrite" for campaigning as an anti-establishment critic of big banks.
On Twitter, Trump said the banks "own him (Cruz)." He added, "No wonder the banks do so well in the U.S. Senate."
Once he raised the issue at the tea party event, Trump didn't back down amid booing. "Show us proof," yelled one Cruz supporter. Trump retorted: "Say whatever you want. He didn't report his bank loans."
For Trump, the offensive continued his pattern of aggressiveness toward whichever of his rivals he says have attacked him first, from Jeb Bush and Rand Paul to former candidates like Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham.
In this case, there's risk for both candidates. Cruz aides believe the bank loans story will not hurt him. He has admitted what he says is an inadvertent error and will amend all the necessary forms, they argue. Meanwhile, GOP primary voters have long accepted that Cruz has credibly positioned himself as an anti-establishment crusader — while few, if any of his rivals will want to raise a debate of who is more beholden to Wall Street.
Yet Trump could prove the exception. He's an unapologetic and proud New Yorker. And now he is tying the bank loan storyline to Cruz's recent critique that Trump represents "New York values," an all-encompassing insult understood by residents in more rural, conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina.
Trump disarmed Cruz in Thursday's debate with a passionate defense of New York City's reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among Trump's Twitter comments Saturday: "When will @TedCruz give all the New York based campaign contributions back to the special interests that control him."
As for their mutual audience Saturday, opinions appeared hard-baked weeks before Iowa's Feb. 1 caucuses.
Debbie Dooley, a Georgia tea party activist who backs Trump, said, "I want someone who can self-finance, who isn't beholden to the big banks, big business." But, she added, "I like Ted. He's a consistent conservative."
Cruz supporter Carolyn Church of South Carolina said she wasn't among those booing Trump.
"I like what he's saying, and I'd love for him to have a role in the administration, but I want Ted to be president," she said.
The volleying over "New York values," the details over Cruz's loans and the focus on Cruz's birthplace, she said, is just "Trump being colorful. ... It's just noise."
Associated Press writer Julie Pace in New Hampshire contributed to this report.
Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.