As the rivalry blooms between the Republican field's top presidential contenders, Cruz and his allies are eyeing a major opportunity in this rural state to cast Trump as an overly zealous land-grabber, profit-driven elitist and big-government liberal, prioritizing commercial interests like his own over conservative values.
Friday, Cruz made eminent domain the feature of his first negative ad against Trump. Alleging that Trump had destroyed the home of an elderly woman in Atlantic City in order to build a limousine parking lot at his casino, Cruz claims that Trump "won't change the system. He's what's wrong with it."
"Trump, with his casinos, he can take the land because it's in his best interest," former Sen. Bob Smith, a Cruz co-chairman, said here. "It's a big deal here, but I don't think it's gotten much publicity -- but I think it will."
Cruz this week across New Hampshire offered a wide-ranging policy critique of Trump, calling his health care plan akin to socialism and his foreign policy hapless. But much like Cruz is dogged by his opposition to ethanol mandates in the state of Iowa, Cruz is hoping that Trump could be hurt by his past support for government takings in a state worried about overreach.
"Donald Trump has said he thinks eminent domain is fantastic, and he supports using government power to seize private people's homes, to give them to giant corporations to say hypothetically build a casino," Cruz said in Wakefield, the first time that Cruz voluntarily brought up Trump's record before an audience.
"Now he's entitled to have that view," Cruz added, "but my view is we have an obligation to protect the rights of Americans, and private property is essential to the rights of Americans."
Trump has been one of eminent domain's strongest supporters, including praising the 2005 Supreme Court Kelo v. New London decision reviled by conservatives for staying that the government's power to repossess property can apply not just for public projects, such as a highway, but for private development as well.
"Eminent domain -- when it comes to jobs, roads, the public good -- I think it's a wonderful thing," Trump said on Fox News
in October. "I fully understand the conservative approach, but I don't think it was explained to most conservatives."
Trump responded to Cruz's attacks Friday morning via Twitter, writing: "Ted Cruz complains about my views on eminent domain, but without it we wouldn't have roads, highways, airports, schools or even pipelines."
Cruz may have found a political vulnerability, but his newfound combativeness across the Granite State this week has been inconsistent, as the Texas senator shows no hesitation to body slam Trump before reporters but then sometimes, only moments later, gives the real estate mogul a pass in front of the crowds. Overall, the heart of Cruz's effort is to expose Trump as a fake conservative -- the exact same charge leveled by Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal, all of whose campaigns have floundered or ended altogether.
"I'm going to leave tone to the judges of tone," Cruz told reporters Wednesday, bristling when given the invitation to judge Trump's coarse language, "and I'm going to focus on substance and policy."
But even as Cruz mocks Trump's early-morning tweets and his temperament, he appears to be particularly animated by bashing Trump for eminent domain, which conservatives typically see as an example of government overreach into the private economy. A leading conservative advocacy group, the Club for Growth, spent $1 million last year in Iowa assailing Trump, who made his billions as a real estate tycoon building properties all over the world, on that very issue.
The attack could resonate here in New Hampshire. A University of New Hampshire poll during the last presidential cycle showed that 70 percent of residents opposed using eminent domain for a hydropower project, the Northern Pass, the Concord Monitor reported
. And given that Trump has in the past favored eminent domain rights not just for government but also for companies as well, Cruz allies say, he is particularly out on a limb in this New England state.
The heart of Cruz's closest argument, the candidate says, will focus unilaterally on policy differences like these, rather than reacting to the tenor of Trump's impolitic statements, which have rankled the more business-minded candidates competing for second place with Cruz here in New Hampshire.
"They're in the category of thinking that Trump is basically unqualified -- he shouldn't be here, he's a buffoon," Smith said of the Cruz rivals. "That's not where Sen. Cruz is coming from."