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Left to right, top to bottom: Sen. Ted Cruz has endorsed Manny Sethi, while Sen. Marsha Blackburn has endorsed Bill Hagerty, in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate for Tennessee. (Cruz by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via AP, Blackburn by Susan Walsh/AP, Hagerty and Sethi by Mark Humphrey/AP)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee's bitter U.S. Senate GOP primary fight between Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi became a battle of endorsements Wednesday as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced his support of Sethi and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, soon afterward jumped in to say she backs Hagerty.

The dueling endorsements come in an increasingly ferocious war between Hagerty, President Donald Trump's former U.S. ambassador to Japan, and Sethi, a Nashville trauma surgeon.

Cruz, who lost Tennessee to Trump in the state's 2016 Republican presidential primary, said in a statement that "primaries are a time for choosing. Too many times the Washington swamp tries to trick voters into choosing their preferred candidate."

The Texan said, "We need conservative fighters in the U.S. Senate that will stand up for our values, and that is why I'm endorsing Dr. Manny Sethi for United States Senate."

Cruz also said, "There's a reason the establishment's throwing everything they've got at Dr. Manny these final days — he's winning. I am urging Tennessee conservatives to stand up to the attacks. Join me, and stand with Manny Sethi."

Sethi's campaign then announced a schedule for Cruz stumping on behalf of the candidate.

Not long after that, Blackburn, long admired by the state's hard-right Republicans, jumped into the fray as early voting continues across Tennessee before the Aug. 6 GOP primary.

"I fully support Bill Hagerty for the United States Senate, because I need a true Tennessee conservative to stand with me to protect our Tennessee values," said Blackburn, a Brentwood Republican. "Bill is a true conservative, and he will always fight for Tennesseans."

Taking a swipe at Sethi, Blackburn said, "Manny's friends — and personally picked board members — supported [Democrat] Phil Bredesen and publicly wrongly attacked me during the 2018 election. He stood by and did nothing. They remain on the board of his 'policy think tank' to this day and were not held accountable for their accusations."

(READ MORE: Trump backs Hagerty, who protests previous attack on Blackburn by Sethi allies)

Blackburn charged Sethi "wanted to work in the Obama/Biden White House, defended and supported Obamacare and gave to ActBlue, which is bankrolling the Marxist BLM movement.

"Tennesseans can't afford to send someone who is conveniently conservative to be a Republican and consistently supports President Trump when it's politically convenient. Bill is the consistently conservative choice. Join me and President Trump in supporting Bill Hagerty for Senate."

Asked by the Times Free Press about the Cruz endorsement, Hagerty's campaign reissued a Blackburn tweet in which she called Hagerty a "true conservative, & he will always fight for you. Send him to the Senate to work with me & @realDonaldTrump."

Meanwhile, Sethi's campaign had this to say: "Manny deeply respects Senator Blackburn. He donated to her 2018 Senate campaign, and Bill Hagerty did not. But of course she endorsed Bill Hagerty — she's been friends with Hagerty ever since they worked together on Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign."

During a Friday evening tele-conference call with Hagerty, Trump reiterated his previously announced support for Hagerty. The president acknowledged, "You've got a real primary here, the other side's spending a lot of money. But Bill is somebody who will just never ever let you down. He'll go so far out that he'll never let you down."

Earlier, Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky had announced his support for Sethi.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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