Cruz declares himself new GOP front-runner
© Getty Images

EASLEY, S.C. — Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSinger Leon Bridges to join Willie Nelson in performing at O’Rourke rally Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Poll: Beto O'Rourke leads Cruz by 2 points in Texas Senate race 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

That poll showed the Texas senator leading Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency 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.