Cruz declares himself new GOP front-runner

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EASLEY, S.C. — Ted CruzTed CruzThe media is rigging the election by reporting WikiLeaks emails The Trail 2016: An important lesson in geography Webb: The race to 270 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.

That poll showed the Texas senator leading Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe media is rigging the election by reporting WikiLeaks emails Gingrich defends spat with Megyn Kelly: 'Just watch the videotape' Advocates release parody video to push for paid leave laws 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.