Billionaire American real estate mogul Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have for months acted more like partners than rivals, as they compete to become the Republican Party's nominee for U.S. president.
But at Thursday's Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, the men who occupy the top two positions in most national public opinion polls were anything but friendly towards each other.
During the 2½-hour nationally televised debate, Trump and Cruz repeatedly clashed, at times getting emotional, as they tried to win the support of voters upset at the GOP establishment.
Cruz also engaged in a series of feisty exchanges with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a fellow Cuban-American who is appealing to a broader segment of the party and who is coming in third in most polls.
"There were three winners of this debate: Rubio, Trump and Cruz," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and former campaign advisor for Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
The debate did not do much to change the perception that the Republican field is narrowing, O'Connell told VOA.
"At the rate things are going, it seems like we're heading for a three-man race," he said.
"Ted Cruz certainly did a far better job and got a much-needed win on the birther issue," according to O'Connell. "Though I've got to say that Trump back-handed pretty hard with the New York values [accusation]."