If politics is a blood sport, Republican candidates and their allies are finally drawing their knives, launching a number of early-state attack ads in recent weeks aimed at bruising, if not bloodying, their opponents.
Super PACs backing Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz launched new ads Monday. Rubio's taking aim at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in New Hampshire, while Cruz's group targeted Rubio in Iowa.
But the most action is taking place on the New Hampshire airwaves, where pro-Rubio super PAC Conservative Solutions Project joined super PACs backing the three other candidates vying for the establishment mantle — Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — on air.
Each of those four candidates needs a strong finish in New Hampshire — some, like Rubio, who's been lauded as the establishment frontrunner for weeks, stronger than others — to stay in the race. Their jockeying for place is like a chess game, the attacks exchanged between candidates and their supportive groups complicated enough to warrant a flowchart.
While expectations remain the highest for Rubio, Christie has been gaining on him in New Hampshire polls, coming in just two points behind him there in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. And on Monday, the pro-Rubio super PAC Conservative Solutions PAC launched two ads, one tying Christie to Obama and featuring their infamous embrace in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and the other noting Christie's rocky economic record as governor and reinvigorating the Bridgegate scandal.
"One high tax, Common Core, liberal energy loving, Obamacare Medicaid expanding president is enough," the first ad declares.
Rubio's advisers privately admit that finishing behind any of the other three candidates in Iowa or New Hampshire would be a setback to his bid, and the ads from Conservative Solutions project signal that Rubio's allies see a need to cut off a Christie surge at the start.
Christie has also drawn fire from the pro-Kasich super PAC New Day For America, which launched an ad last week highlighting New Jersey's budget issues.
Christie has yet to receive any air-cover in the state, though the candidate himself hasn't been shy about taking cracks at his opponents, repeatedly jabbing Rubio for his absences both from the Senate and from the campaign trail in New hampshire.
And on Monday, Christie suggested the Florida senator was being hypocritical in going negative, echoing comments Rubio made to Bush at a debate that "somebody must've told you" that attacking him would help him.
"I guess that same person now must have convinced Marco that going negative against Chris Christie is what he needs to do," Christie said in an interview with Bloomberg. "Fact is, listen, I stand by my record as governor of New Jersey — it's a good one."
Meanwhile, the pro-Bush Right to Rise has launched two ads, one targeting Kasich and Christie for their records as governors, and one highlighting a terrorism briefing Rubio missed to fundraise. Right to Rise has also targeted Rubio on the airwaves in Iowa, an attempt to weaken his standing there and diminish any momentum he might enjoy from a strong finish in the first nominating contest.
And it's likely only the start of what's sure to be wall-to-wall attack ads from groups allied with the candidates as they seek to draw contrasts with each other in the final four weeks before the New Hampshire primary, as voters finally tune in and make their final decisions.
Rick Galen, a former adviser to George W. Bush, said in an interview to expect the fight to escalate in the coming weeks.
"At some point," he said, "someone is going to have to be that standard bearer for the establishment of the party. And they don't have any time left to wait."