Republican presidential race erupts into 4-way battle

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CHARLESTON, S.C./SUMTER, S.C. (Reuters) -- The Republican race for the party's 2016 presidential nomination erupted into a four-candidate crossfire on Wednesday over who has the proper experience and is the most conservative, days before South Carolina voters put their stamp on the campaign.

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In TV interviews and campaign events, front-runner Donald Trump threatened to sue U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas over a negative TV ad, while U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida accused Cruz of lying about his record, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush questioned Rubio's experience to serve as president.

Amid the squabbling, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley endorsed Rubio as the Republicans' best hope for winning the White House on Nov. 8, a big boost to Rubio and a blow to Bush, who had lobbied hard for her to pick him.

Bush had a tough day, learning of Haley's endorsement right before a town hall meeting in Summerville, South Carolina, where four members of the audience second-guessed his campaign strategy and offered tips on how to have a greater impact in the state that holds its Republican primary on Saturday.

Much of the debate took place over the television airwaves, as Trump lobbed charges at his rivals on an MSNBC town hall, and Rubio and Cruz battled in back-to-back appearances at a CNN town hall in Greenville, South Carolina.

GOP candidates campaigning in South Carolina:

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GOP Candidates campaigning in South Carolina
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Republican presidential race erupts into 4-way battle
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves after speaking at a rally at the Riverview Park Activity Center in North Augusta, S.C., Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush talks with supporters at a polling place outside Eastlan Baptist Church, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., signs his book at Clemson University during a campaign stop, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, smiles while speaking to a reporter during a campaign stop on primary election day at The Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg, South Carolina, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. With South Carolina polls closing at 7 p.m., voters will have their say in the Republican presidential contest as Donald Trump, who holds a commanding lead in most South Carolina polls, and five other Republican candidates face off. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CHAPIN, SC - FEBRUARY 20: People vote in the Republican presidential primary on February 20, 2016 in Chapin, South Carolina. Polls show New York businessman Donald Trump leading his closest rival U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - FEBRUARY 19: People reach for signatures, photos, and handshakes as republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets the crowd after speaking during a campaign event at the North Charleston Convention Center in North Charleston, SC on Friday Feb. 19, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - FEBRUARY 19, 2016: Senator Rubio delivers a heart felt and energetic speech to the gathered supporters at RB Stall High School Friday, February 19, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina . (Alex Holt for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA-FEBRUARY 19: Ted Cruz comes out again to speak to supporters after sitting down with Fox Show host Sean Hannity. (Photo by Lucian Perkins /for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Supporters for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs during a South Carolina Republican primary night event Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Spartanburg, S.C. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks during a campaign stop, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Summerville, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at a rally Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Anderson, S.C. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Attendees wait to enter a Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a campaign event Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Bluffton, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, center, stands with members of the audience for the pledge of allegiance before speaking at a rally at Summerville Country Club in Summerville, S.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a rally at Summerville Country Club in Summerville, S.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the Seneca Family Restaurant, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Seneca, S.C. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Shadows of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are cast on a sign as he speaks at a rally Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Anderson, S.C. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with attendees during a campaign stop Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Walterboro, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens to a question from the audience during a rally at Summerville Country Club in Summerville, S.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Walterboro, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson addresses the audience during a presidential forum at First Baptist North Spartanburg in Spartanburg, S.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, addresses the audience during a presidential forum at First Baptist North Spartanburg in Spartanburg, S.C., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign rally in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Cruz has flooded South Carolina airwaves with attack ads against Donald Trump, seeking to portray him as an opportunistic politician who shouldn't be trusted by conservatives. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Campaign buttons for Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, sit in a basket ahead of a campaign rally at the Columbia Armory in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Cruz has flooded South Carolina airwaves with attack ads against Donald Trump, seeking to portray him as an opportunistic politician who shouldn't be trusted by conservatives. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
LEESVILLE, SC - FEBRUARY 16: Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush (L) signs an autograph on the cast of local resident Briannah Williams (R) who was injured from cheerleading as her mother Krystle Williams (2nd R) looks on during a campaign event at Shealy's Bar-B-Que February 16, 2016 in Leesville, South Carolina. Bush continued to campaign for the upcoming GOP primary in South Carolina. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
BEAUFORT, SC - FEBRUARY 16: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on stage during a campaign event on February 16, 2016 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Trump is leading in South Carolina polls just days before the state's primaries. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
LEESVILLE, SC - FEBRUARY 16: A welcome message is seen piror to a campaign event of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush at Shealy's Bar-B-Que February 16, 2016 in Leesville, South Carolina. Bush continued to campaign for the upcoming GOP primary in South Carolina. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
John Kasich, governor of Ohio and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a town hall event at Murray's Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Cayce, South Carolina, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. After deploying an all-in strategy in New England, where he finished behind billionaire Donald Trump, Kasich has a huge challenge ahead of the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary and the other races that will rapidly follow. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
John Kasich, governor of Ohio and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a town hall event at Murray's Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Cayce, South Carolina, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. After deploying an all-in strategy in New England, where he finished behind billionaire Donald Trump, Kasich has a huge challenge ahead of the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary and the other races that will rapidly follow. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Supporters pray during a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz in Anderson, South Carolina, February 16, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
BLUFFTON, SC - FEBRUARY 17: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to voters on February 17, 2016 in Bluffton, South Carolina. Trump addressed the Sun City Republicans with three days remaining before the South Carolina Republican primary. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson talks with supporters after speaking at a veteran's roundtable in Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a town hall event at the Omar Shrine Temple in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. Donald Trump remains the front-runner in South Carolina, where Republican voters head to the polls on Saturday. According to a survey released Monday by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling, Trump holds a 17-point lead over Senators Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are tied for second place. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson (R) looks at his watch as he rushes to his next event after speaking at a veteran's roundtable in Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a press conference at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Seneca, South Carolina, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. Cruz says Donald Trump sent his lawyers cease and desist letters over a Cruz campaign ad that portrays Trump as pro-choice saying that if the Cruz campaign doesn't pull ad, they'll see immediate legal action to prevent the continued broadcast of this ad, according to Cruz. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WALTERBORO, SC - FEBRUARY 17: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to South Carolina voters on February 17, 2016 in Walterboro, South Carolina. Trump addressed the Lowcountry Sportsmen for Trump with three days remaining before the South Carolina Republican primary. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHAPIN, SC - FEBRUARY 17: Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) appears with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at an event February 17, 2016 in Chapin, South Carolina. Haley endorsed Rubio in the state's upcoming primary. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
An attendee waves a crutch with an American flag during a campaign rally for Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican Presidential candidate, not pictured, at a farm in Walterboro, South Carolina, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. Donald Trump remains the front-runner in South Carolina, where Republican voters head to the polls on Saturday. According to a survey released Monday by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling, Trump holds a 17-point lead over Senators Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are tied for second place. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An attendee takes a selfie photograph with Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican Presidential candidate, right, following a campaign rally at a farm in Walterboro, South Carolina, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. Donald Trump remains the front-runner in South Carolina, where Republican voters head to the polls on Saturday. According to a survey released Monday by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling, Trump holds a 17-point lead over Senators Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are tied for second place. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wearing a Superman cape departs the Civic Center after a campaign rally in Sumter, South Carolina, February 17, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
GREENVILLE, SC - FEBRUARY 17: Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks to moderator Anderson Cooper (R) during a commercial break of a CNN South Carolina Republican Presidential Town Hall February 17, 2016 in Greenville, South Carolina. The primary vote in South Carolina is February 20. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Fourteen-year-old supporters Kaylie Kilpatrick (C) and her friend James Hanna (L) pose dress like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Sumter, South Carolina, February 17, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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Trump fumed about a TV ad put out by the Cruz campaign that brought up Trump's past position in support of a woman's right to an abortion. Trump says he has evolved into a conservative and is now against abortion.

"You look at a guy like Ted Cruz, he's a nasty guy," Trump said. "He doesn't have one Republican endorsement from the Senate and he works with the Senate. Think of it. Hard to believe."

Cruz dared Trump to sue him over the campaign ad, which featured a 1999 video clip of Trump, a billionaire businessman and former reality TV star, saying he was "very pro-choice" on abortion.

Cruz said Trump sent his campaign a "cease and desist letter" demanding it drop the ad. At the CNN town hall, he said he laughed out loud when he got the letter threatening what he called a "frivolous lawsuit."

"In any defamation case, truth is a complete defense," Cruz said.

CHARGES, COUNTERCHARGES

Cruz reveled in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that said Republicans nationally now put him ahead of Trump, 28 percent to 26 percent.

The latest national Reuters/Ipsos poll, however, showed Trump taking a more than 20-point lead over Cruz in the Republican race.

Trump had 40 percent support in the poll conducted from Saturday to Wednesday, compared with 17 percent for Cruz, 11 percent for Rubio, 10 percent for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and 8 percent for Bush.

Rubio, hoping to overtake Cruz for second place in South Carolina, where Trump leads in the polls, accused Cruz of spreading falsehoods with an ad attacking Rubio over his position on immigration.

Rubio backed a 2013 Senate immigration reform effort that collapsed. Cruz says Rubio would have supported "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, which his rival denies.

"If you say something that isn't true and you say it over and over and you know it's not true, it must be a lie," Rubio said.

Bush, running fourth in South Carolina and behind Rubio, questioned Rubio's level of experience after Rubio said Bush did not have foreign policy experience. Rubio counts his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as valuable experience.

"It's hard for me to be lectured to by a gifted young guy who thinks going to committee hearings means you know something about the world," Bush said in Summerville.

At the event, Bush sounded a note of frustration at frequent criticism of his campaign by TV pundits.

"The pundits have made it all - it's all decided. We don't have to go vote, I guess. It's all finished. I should stop campaigning, maybe, huh? It's all done," he said.

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"No," shouted people in the crowd.

Haley's endorsement gave Rubio, 44, a valuable ally to try to sway voters in South Carolina, the third contest after Iowa and New Hampshire to pick a party nominee for the November election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama.

"If we elect Marco Rubio, every day will be a great day in America," Haley said, with Rubio at her side at an event in Chapin, South Carolina.

Some political analysts have said Haley could be picked as the Republican vice presidential nominee.

A Bush aide said Haley called Bush to inform him of her plan to endorse Rubio.

"Disappointed" was Bush's response. "She's a very good governor and should I win the nomination, there'll be a role for her in the campaign," Bush, 63, told reporters after a campaign event in Summerville. "Trust me, she's a great person."

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