The nasty Republican campaign for president took an even more bitter personal turn Friday with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz blasting a National Enquirer story insinuating that he had a series of extramarital affairs as “garbage,” and blaming “Sleazy Donald,” as he dubbed Donald Trump, for planting it.

“Let me be clear: This National Enquirer story is garbage. It is complete and utter lies,” Cruz said while campaigning in Wisconsin, which votes April 5 and where polls indicate he is locked in a tight race with Trump.

“It is a tabloid smear, and it is a smear that has come from Donald Trump and his henchmen,” Cruz said.

Trump denied any involvement, issuing a statement with a trademark dose of mock empathy

“Ted Cruz’s problem with the National Enquirer is his and his alone, and while they were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others, I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” Trump said.

At a news conference, Cruz said the Enquirer story was choreographed to cap a couple of days of Trump tweets targeting Cruz’s wife, Heidi. Those tweets were in retaliation for a Facebook ad by an anti-Trump super PAC unaffiliated with the Cruz campaign featuring a risque British GQ cover photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, from her days as a model.

Trump tweeted, “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!” and, the next day, retweeted a meme with an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz next to a flattering photo of his wife.

“Donald, you’re a sniveling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone,” Cruz said Thursday in Wisconsin.

The Enquirer that hit newsstands Friday included lurid headlines about Cruz’s alleged five affairs, but the story was built entirely on rumors.

“Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is the target of a vicious ‘dirty tricks’ campaign!” the story begins. “Political operatives are compiling an explosive ‘dirt file’ on the finger-wagging, conservative senator from Texas, the National Enquirer has learned.”

The story had been promoted in advance, but, after a day bouncing around the Twitter-sphere without gaining mainstream traction, Cruz brought up the story with reporters Friday.

“One question Americans are asking all over this country is, ‘How low will Donald go, is there not a level to which he is unwilling to stoop?'” Cruz asked. “To date we have not seen it.”

Cruz said that David Pecker, CEO of American Media Inc., the owner of Star Magazine and the National Enquirer, backs Trump’s presidential bid, and, “it is a story that quoted one source on the record: Roger Stone, Donald Trump’s chief political adviser.

“And what is striking is Donald’s henchman, Roger Stone, had for months been foreshadowing that this attack was coming,” Cruz said.

“One man’s dirty trick is another man’s quest for the truth,” Stone told the American-Statesman. Stone long has been close to Trump, but he left the campaign in August and has no formal role, though he and Trump still talk and, in a variety of ways, he looks out for Trump’s interests. In a March 14 interview with Austin-based broadcaster Alex Jones, Stone talked about a coming Cruz sex scandal.

Stone is also the author of recent books arguing that Lyndon B. Johnson had John F. Kennedy killed, that the Bushes are a “crime family,” and that Bill Clinton was a sexual abuser and Hillary Clinton his enabler, that last book co-written with Austin’s Robert Morrow, the profane conspiracy theorist whose recent surprise election as Travis County Republican Party chairman drew national attention.

Of Cruz’s decision to confront the story head-on, Kirby Goidel, a Texas A&M University expert on political communication, said, “If you’re not denying it, it gives it legs, and if you do deny it, it gives it legs.”

Even as Cruz was condemning the story, Amanda Carpenter, the former communications director in his Senate office, found herself in an unexpected confrontation on CNN when Boston Herald columnist Adriana Cohen, who likes Trump, said she wanted to talk about “the National Enquirer story that has reported that Ted Cruz has had affairs with five mistresses, including, you’ve been named as well, Amanda.”

“What’s out there is tabloid trash,” Carpenter said. “If someone wants to comment on it, they can talk to my lawyer. It’s categorically false. You should be ashamed for spreading this smut. Donald Trump supporters should be held to account for it.”

“What’s worse? People who actually believe the trash in tabloids, or the ones who know it’s false & spread it anyway?” tweeted Katrina Pierson, Trump’s national spokeswoman. Pierson, a tea party activist and one-time congressional candidate from Garland was in Cruz’s political orbit until signing on with the Trump campaign last year.

The Enquirer didn’t name any names, only publishing unidentifiable pixelated photos with black strips over the subjects’ eyes and brief descriptions of the five women.

However, social media users jumped to conclusions that Carpenter and Pierson fit two of the descriptions and widely circulated their names.

R.B. Brenner, director of the University of Texas’ School of Journalism, said that while the Enquirer story had found its way into the campaign, it was critical for media outlets not to give it more credibility than it deserved.

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(c)2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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