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Trump and Cruz square off during Republican presidential debate

The two frontrunners in the US Republican primary have exchanged bitter words at the latest debate. Tension in the party is mounting as conservatives gear up to go to the polls in the state of Iowa.

The top two contenders in the fight to become the next Republican presidential nominee have gone toe-to-toe after months of refraining from attacking each other.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz took center stage during Friday's Republican presidential debate, mostly sidelining the other candidates while highlighting the strong divides within the Republican Party.

Trump, the billionaire businessman and television celebrity who has entertained and shocked the world with his controversial views, finally turned on Cruz after previously focusing his wrath on other candidates such as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina. Until recently, Cruz had been leading Trump in Iowa, where voters will get to choose their preferred nominee on February 1. Trump took the opportunity to further chip away at the Texas senator's popularity.

'The constitution hasn't changed'

Trump played the "birther" card against Cruz, referring to the fact that Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother in an effort to raise doubts about whether or not Cruz could legally assume the presidency should he win.

"Back in September, my friend Donald had said he had had his lawyers look at this every which way and said there was no issue there," the Texan shot back. "Now since September, the Constitution hasn't changed. But the poll numbers have."

Trump admitted he was attacking Cruz's eligibility because his poll numbers had gone up. "Now he's doing a little bit better. Before I didn't care," Trump said, while continuing to raise doubts in viewers' heads about the legal implications of Cruz's birthplace. "There's a big question mark over your head, and you can't do that to the party."

'Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan'

Cruz also launched his own attacks, accusing the Manhattan-based Trump of having "New York values" - referring to the supposedly elitist, pro-abortion, pro-gay, pro-money attitude that Cruz has raged against. "Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan," Cruz remarked, eliciting laughter and applause from the audience.

But Trump fired back. "Conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan," he said, before touting the tenacity of New Yorkers in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

"I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made," Trump said, drawing his own fair share of applause.

Other candidates - including Bush, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson - failed to make much of a dent during the debate, although Rubio did score points in many pundits' eyes for attacking Cruz for his flip-flopping on issues like immigration and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

blc/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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