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Ted Cruz and Donald Trump's monumentally stupid fight over their wives' honor, explained

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Now that the Republican contest is down to three candidates, Donald Trump has set his sights on his next rival: Ted Cruz.

The race between the leading GOP candidates has devolved into a manly contest of who can better defend his wife in the vicious world of politics.

This week, Trump claimed he had some dirt on Cruz's wife.

The Republican frontrunner fired back at an attack ad in support of Cruz that used a nude photo of Trump's wife, Melania Trump, with a threat to "spill the beans" on Cruz's wife, Heidi.

The attack ad, targeted at Utah's conservative Mormon base before Tuesday's primary, was sponsored by Make America Awesome, a Super PAC supporting Cruz. It featured an image from a GQ photo shoot with the caption, "Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady. Or you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday."

While Cruz's campaign wasn't behind the ad, Trump made it personal anyway, tweeting at Cruz that if he kept going after Melania, Heidi should watch out.

Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016

Cruz responded to what he called a "classless" threat against his wife:

Pic of your wife not from us. Donald, if you try to attack Heidi, you're more of a coward than I thought. #classless

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) March 23, 2016

The feud continued

The interaction didn't stop there.

Trump, consistent with his passive-aggressive retweeting style, shared a follower's post comparing pictures of the two wives with the caption, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

While campaigning through Wisconsin, Cruz did not shy away from addressing the feud at his stump speeches throughout the state. He said "real men" don't attack women and called Trump a "sniveling coward" for bringing Heidi into the hostility.

But Trump punched back. He didn't start this whole thing, he said in a tweet.

Trump has also attacked Jeb Bush's wife

This isn't the first time wives have come up in the Republican presidential campaign.

Early on in the election cycle Trump went after then-rival Jeb Bush's wife, Columba, retweeting a follower that said Bush must "like the Mexican Illegals" (Columba Bush is a Mexican immigrant). The retweet, which Trump said he did not authorize, was subsequently deleted after it was online for a day:

Busted. Donald Trump deleted this tweet attacking Jeb Bush over his Mexican wife:

— Angelo Carusone (@GoAngelo) July 6, 2015

But Trump went on to tell CNN's Anderson Cooper that he did not regret the tweet.

"No, I don't regret it," Trump told Anderson Cooper. "If my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico. ... I’ve heard she’s a lovely woman, by the way."

Bush demanded Trump apologize to his wife for bringing her "into the middle of a raucous political conversation" at one of the early Republican debates in September.

Trump, in classic Trump fashion, refused to apologize.

When does Trump make it personal?

Trump thrives on attention. When he doesn't get attention, he makes it personal.

His rise is largely attributed to his ability to dominate the news cycle. According to an analysis from the New York Times, he has been able to stay in the center of the election while spending less in TV advertising than any other major candidate:

Like all candidates, he benefits from what is known as earned media: news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media. Earned media typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign. The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate — maybe than any candidate ever — at earning media.

And Tuesday was a better day for Cruz, who continues to trail behind Trump in the delegate count. Cruz took an easy win in Utah, a strongly Mormon state that has not been open to Trump's bombastic political personality, with about 69 percent of the vote.

Cruz also had a strong news cycle after the attacks in Brussels, calling for a need to "patrol" Muslim neighborhoods – a statement that resonated with voters who supported Trump's similarly acerbic statement about banning Muslims immigration.

And in response, Trump went after Heidi Cruz.

When someone stands up against Trump or goes after him, whether it's Megyn Kelly at the first Republican presidential debate or Marco Rubio, Trump makes it personal. Kelly was labeled a bimbo, and no one can forget the dick measuring contest between "Big Donald" and "Little Marco."

This tactic works for Trump, and Trump only

Since announcing his presidential bid, Trump has been able to draw attention away from policy and make headlines with often polarizing and contentious statements.

His stand against political correctness has struck a chord with voters, and ever since his first "build a wall" rallying cry, his support has only grown. Even when he waged a war against the pope, he still came out on top.

This works for Trump, and Trump alone.

None of the other candidates or their Super PACs have been able to beat Trump at his game. When Rubio tried to throw back punches, he looked childish and unpresidential. He dropped in the polls, lost his own home state primary to Trump and dropped out of the running only a few weeks after Penisgate.

Right to Rise, the Super PAC supporting Bush, went after Trump in South Carolina, pouring money into an attack ad that chided Trump for his feud with Megyn Kelly and his relationship with the Clintons. It called Bush the "better man." Bush dropped out of the race after a loss in South Carolina.

If this trend continues, Make American Awesome's ad has the potential to only add to the Trumpmemtum.

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