Cruz declares himself new GOP front-runner

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EASLEY, S.C. — Ted CruzTed CruzWhy is Donald Trump rocking his uneasy base? Michele Bachmann: God picked Trump to be the GOP nominee Trump at immigration crossroads MORE declared himself the new Republican presidential front-runner during a Thursday afternoon appearance at a BBQ restaurant in this small South Carolina town.

"For the first time in many, many months there's a new front-runner," said Cruz, referring to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that came out on Wednesday.

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That poll showed the Texas senator leading Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton: Trump doesn’t believe in 'American exceptionalism' Sanders rallies supporters to elect a Democratic Senate Poll: Feingold up double-digits on Johnson in Wis. Senate race MORE nationally by 2 percentage points, 28-26, with the rest of the Republican field some distance behind the duo.

The poll is out of line with other national surveys that continue to show Trump with a comfortable lead. A CBS News poll on Thursday showed the businessman ahead of the second-place Cruz by a margin of almost 2-to-1, 35-18.

Cruz had some fun with the NBC poll, saying that he was expecting a "storm" of tweets any moment — presumably from Trump — questioning its findings.

The NBC poll was also welcome news for Cruz because his numbers have been largely stagnant in South Carolina. 

He was considered a strong bet to win here at one point, given that his strong social conservatism appears a good fit for the state's GOP electorate.

The current RealClearPolitics average in the Palmetto State gives Trump a lead of 16 points, however.

A further unexpected twist in this year's Republican race came earlier on Thursday, when Pope Francis suggested Trump's proposal to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico was "un-Christian." Trump immediately blasted back at the pontiff, and one of his aides noted that the Vatican was "surrounded by walls."

As Cruz entered Thursday's event surrounded by a scrum of reporters, he declined to offer a firm view on the furor.

"That's between Donald and the pope and I'm not going to get in the middle of that," he said.