Republican rivals launch effort to villainize Donald Trump

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Republicans are testing out new lines of attack on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJeb Bush: Reports of father supporting Clinton were 'inappropriate' Trump: I have 'very good' marital history Report: Trump Foundation lacks proper certification MORE meant to portray him as a ruthless dealmaker who sought to make money at any cost — even if he hurt working people in the process. 

The attacks are meant to go after one of Trump’s greatest strengths: that he is a consummate business dealmaker who can bring those skills to the White House and better America’s position with the rest of the world.

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Ted CruzTed CruzFour states sue to stop internet transition House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security MORE’s campaign has launched an ad that accused Trump of colluding with “Atlantic City insiders to bulldoze the home of an elderly widow for a limousine parking lot at his casino.” The elderly woman is shown on screen saying of Trump, “He doesn’t have no heart, that man.”

Team Cruz, which is fighting for supremacy with Trump in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, makes no apologies for the hit.

“The idea is that eminent domain is for the public good and he attempted to use it for personal gain,” said Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler, in a telephone interview with The Hill. “It gives people the sense that, when [Trump] talks about the art of the deal … somebody’s going to get screwed.

“He doesn’t have a record of doing anything for the public good. He has a record of paying off Democratic politicians and the party, and now he’s claiming that they are the people destroying the country.”

In an interview with The Hill, Trump fired back at Cruz, calling the ad "one of the dumbest attacks I've ever heard" and saying that he never ripped down the Atlantic City woman's house. 

"I said forget it, if she wants it that badly let her have it," Trump said. "By the way, she saved me a fortune because the market turned bad after that. She ended up getting a lot less for her house than she could’ve gotten."

Trump then defended eminent domain and criticized Cruz.  

"Without a eminent domain you wouldn’t have a highway in the country. You wouldn’t have a railroad, you wouldn’t have a road, you wouldn’t have a hospital, you wouldn’t have schools. And by the way, you wouldn’t have the Keystone Pipeline if it ever happens," he said.

Trump noted that Cruz backs construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

"Every conservative wants the Keystone Pipeline. The Keystone Pipeline couldn’t be one foot long if it weren’t for eminent domain," he said. "People get paid a lot of money for their land, the fair market value for their land. And they actually do better than that if they’re smart.

"I’m not in love with eminent domain, but you have to understand some things are necessary. The Keystone Pipeline, there’s a whole section devoted to eminent domain," he said.

PolitiFact adjudicated the Trump-Cruz dispute over eminent domain and found that Trump was half-right when he accused Cruz of "false advertising" during his appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday. In the 1990s Trump and the New Jersey government tried to use eminent domain laws to force the elderly widow Vera Coking to sell her house for Trump's limousine parking lot, but they lost the argument in court and the deal never happened.

Other ads in the planning stages are intended to hit Trump’s Atlantic City dealings hard, according to a Republican operative who has viewed opposition research against the GOP front-runner.

The operative said opponents see the attacks as an effective strategy to shake voters’ trust in Trump and cast him as someone who cares about himself and nobody else.

“When [voters] get a sense that Trump is really in it for himself, which his bankruptcy proceedings show,” it undermines his trustworthiness in the minds of voters, said David McIntosh, the president of conservative group Club for Growth, which has lashed out at Trump in a series of ads.

The attacks are similar in some ways to those used against 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In the GOP primary, Newt Gingrich zeroed in on Romney’s years at Bain Capital.

Bain was accused of acquiring failing companies and then cutting jobs before selling the streamlined companies for a profit. Romney and his supporters argued that Bain’s efforts actually saved jobs, since many of the companies would have gone under without Bain’s involvement.

Though the attacks were not enough to cost Romney the nomination, President Obama picked up where Gingrich left off in the fall.

Trump has been a Teflon candidate in this year’s race, seemingly invulnerable to attack.

Yet the Club for Growth, the first conservative outfit to spend significantly on attack ads against Trump, said its internal polling shows that his group’s eminent domain attack ad depicting Trump as “bullying property owners” cut through with voters.

The $1 million anti-Trump campaign from Club for Growth that ran in Iowa from midway through September to early October coincided with a temporary dip in Trump’s polling in the first voting state. But other well-funded conservative groups declined to follow Club for Growth’s lead, and Trump recovered in the absence of follow-up attacks.

Club for Growth believes that eminent domain can be used to lower Trump’s numbers in New Hampshire, where the subject has been controversial in the past in disputes over an energy transmission project.

“The reason that eminent domain — a reasonably arcane, esoteric concept — [tests well] is that it shows that Donald Trump has literally bulldozed over the little guy to get his way,” said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster who leads the Keep the Promise I super-PAC supporting Cruz.

Conway compares Trump’s vulnerabilities to those of Chris Christie. Voters liked that Christie was outspoken and aggressive when they believed the New Jersey governor was doing so on their behalf, she says. But the minute that perception changed, with his staff causing traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge to exact political revenge, Christie looked like a bully who would hurt the little guy.

“At the beginning, he picked on the right bogeymen, the unions … then all of a sudden with Bridge-gate it looks like he screwed the wrong pooch, you and me, commuters trying to get to the hospital,” Conway said. “He’s never fully recovered even though his hands are clean.”

Conway and other Republican strategists interviewed for this story say it is one thing for voters to hear Trump attacked on a debate stage by a politician and another to see the matters discussed on television by Trump himself.

A new super-PAC, set up by former Romney aide Katie Packer, is now reportedly running a seven figure anti-Trump advertising campaign in Iowa. Packer would not confirm the total spent by Our Principles PAC or discuss the group’s plans, but it is clear from the material released so far that the group believes that there is enough damaging footage of Trump already in circulation to hurt him with GOP primary voters.

Some GOP donors and operatives are worried it is too late to take Trump down.

They say groups like the super-PAC Right to Rise, which raised $103 million by midway through last year and backs Jeb Bush for president, should have started hitting Trump earlier instead of spending some $20 million hitting another establishment contender, Marco Rubio.

“Part of my frustration is that groups like Right to Rise, who have so much money, haven’t tried to take him down,” said a Republican operative who has commissioned opposition research against Trump.

“What I have seen has indicated that there’s no one silver bullet that will take him down. … It’s the weight of attacks that works.”

Alex Bolton contributed to this story.