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Story highlights

"They call Ted Cruz Obama's nemesis," begins the ad

Cruz's campaign and super PACs have released a flurry of negative spots on Rubio in the last 48 hours

Wilton, Iowa CNN —  

After weeks of decreeing that he had entered a two-man race with Donald Trump in the Iowa caucus, Sen. Ted Cruz is quickly shifting focus to an opponent he thought he once vanquished: Sen. Marco Rubio.

Just two days before voters go to the polls, in a new Iowa television advertisement first reported by CNN, Cruz calls Rubio “the Republican Obama,” a sign that Cruz’s campaign could be worried the Florida senator is surging.

The Texas senator, under siege by much of the GOP field, has moved nearly all of his negative ads away from Trump – who sits in a modest first place according to Iowa recent polls – and toward Rubio.

“They call Ted Cruz Obama’s nemesis,” the ad begins, which first aired on Friday and was observed by CMAG/Kantar Media, a company that tracks political advertising. “Marco Rubio’s different, the Republican Obama who championed Obama’s amnesty and led the Gang of Eight,” a reference to failed immigration legislation in 2013 that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The spot also airs a video of Rubio in which he appears to support a cap-and-trade program, a plan to tax carbon emissions.

“Tax hikes. Amnesty. The Republican Obama,” the message concludes.

Cruz’s campaign and super PACs have released a flurry of similar negative spots on Rubio shortly before the caucus, most of which dredge up Rubio’s support for the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill.

The two fought for much of November and December, often about immigration. But after Cruz jumped ahead in many polls, he said the establishment was “abandoning” the back-and-forth with Rubio and then started to unload on Trump.

Now, as hours count down in Iowa, the Cruz campaign appears to be calling an audible play, refocusing its attention on an old target in order to stem a surge from a third-place Rubio rather than investing ad money to take down Trump.

Cruz’s team maintains that Rubio poses no immediate political threat. Yet the torrent of last-minute advertising could undercut Cruz’s persistent claim that the contest is a two-man race between him and Trump.

Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe said Friday that the campaign estimates 2,387 voters are deciding between Cruz and Rubio in Iowa – about a quarter of the total number they think are stuck between Cruz and Trump.

“He’s not worried about Rubio beating him in Iowa. But they’re looking now to the future: Does Rubio come out of Iowa strong enough to get through South Carolina and actually keep himself going?” said Erick Erickson, a conservative personality in close touch with the Cruz team. “And I think that’s got to be a real concern from the Cruz campaign.”

Other signs emerged Friday that Cruz’s two-horse race theory is slipping away. After the debate in Des Moines on Thursday, Cruz’s aides crowed about how Rubio was forced to defend his immigration record – a common post-debate boast for team Cruz early in the campaign, but less so recently.

Cruz’s campaign also opened another front in the war against Rubio, dubbing him “Mandate Marco” for his positions on cap-and-trade. They were eager to downplay late momentum by Rubio in the Hawkeye State, telling reporters that he would finish in a weak third place at best even as the candidate sharpened his rhetoric.

“If you look in particular at President Obama’s executive amnesty,” Cruz said Friday morning in Ringsted, “Marco Rubio’s gone on Univision and said in Spanish, ‘no, no, no, no, no, I wouldn’t rescind amnesty.’”

But Rubio has inched up in recent Iowa polls, and the third-place finish that he is positioned for now looks more secure.

The state’s popular junior senator, Joni Ernst, appeared on stage with Rubio and praised him – a tacit blessing, but not necessarily an endorsement – and its largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, did endorse him. Its headline on Friday – ‘Rough Night for Cruz’ – did little to cement the perception of a two-man race.

A cavalry of outside groups is also taking aim at Rubio. One super PAC, Stand for Truth, just days ago reassigned $700,000 in television time that it planned to use against Rubio toward Trump. But then late Friday, a new Stand for Truth anti-Rubio video surfaced.

Meanwhile, Keep the Promise, the other main super PAC supporting Cruz, on Thursday and Friday also unveiled new advertisements bashing Rubio. It had, in recent days, been signaling that it would begin a scorched-earth campaign to take down Trump with a series of tough advertisements, and it appears to be maintaining a dual focus, releasing anti-Trump and anti-Rubio spots consecutively late this week.

On Monday, both the super PACs and the campaign had decided that Trump and the “New York values” he embodies was the target of the paid media campaign. Now, that has suddenly changed.

Joe Pounder, a Rubio spokesman, said that Rubio’s growing support explained the late advertising shift.

“Instead of campaigning on his record, Senator Cruz is pumping millions into negative and false attack ads days before the caucus because he knows Marco is gaining momentum,” Pounder said. “Considering that he stood with Barack Obama just months ago to weaken our intelligence programs, this ad is another in a litany of examples of Ted Cruz desperately saying … anything to try to win an election.”

Speaking at a campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa, early Friday evening, Rubio himself hit back.

“He’s taken 100% of his advertising in the last three days and he’s using it to attack me,” Rubio said, harkening back to his first Senate run, “mostly using the same ads my liberal opponent used to attack me in 2009 – but it’s fine.”

CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.