The feud between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz that lit up the GOP debate stage spilled over to Wednesday, with Cruz finding himself on the defensive over his role in the doomed 2013 immigration overhaul effort and with Rubio whacking Cruz from all angles on national security.
While both scored points against each other during Tuesday night’s showdown, Rubio managed to redirect questions about his own position on immigration and sow fresh doubts about Cruz’s that dominated the following news cycle.
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“My stance on immigration has been consistent. I categorically oppose amnesty,” Cruz said Wednesday afternoon during a news conference in California. “What they’re [the Rubio campaign] asserting, laughingly, is his record and my record is the same on immigration. Their team says that over and over and over again. That position is ridiculous.”
Rubio acknowledged on the debate stage that his openness to an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants might put him outside the current GOP orthodoxy on the issue. Conservatives are by no means giving Rubio a free pass. But Cruz is the one, at least for now, facing more heat for his own 2013 amendment to the Gang of Eight immigration reform package that would have stripped out a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but would have still allowed them to get legal status.
“Look, I understand Marco wants to raise confusion, it is not accurate what he just said that I supported legalization. Indeed, I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty,” Cruz said Tuesday night, adding later, “I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.”
Cruz’s campaign insists that his amendment was intended as a “poison pill” for the larger reform package designed to expose what was “really” in the bill. “It was a strategic way to do it, to point out what Rubio wanted, full citizenship for people here illegally,” Cruz campaign spokesman Rick Tyler said on Wednesday of the move. “By offering the amendment, it exposed them for what they were after, what they really wanted in the bill.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of the Senate’s biggest immigration hard-liners, backed Cruz in an interview Wednesday, saying, “No, I didn’t,” when asked whether he interpreted Cruz’s actions as a sign he supported legal status. He went on to add, “You can say it was a poison pill, yeah. I think it highlighted — I think he was able to tell the American people how far they intended to go with it.”
But much of the conservative media aligned with Rubio on the matter after the debate. “By claiming he never supported legalization, Cruz just either lied, or offered an enormously misleading statement. If he did that about his past position on a path to legalization,” wrote Jim Geraghty of National Review, “would he do the same about his future stance?”
The bipartisan Gang of Eight bill, which Rubio co-wrote along with Democrats like Chuck Schumer, has been thought to be the Florida senator’s biggest liability with conservative primary voters. Cruz, who never misses an opportunity to link Rubio with Schumer, said Wednesday that Rubio’s acknowledgement of his position Tuesday night was “an important moment of candor.”
Ironically, it’s Cruz whose candor is now being questioned on immigration, at least in the conservative media and by the Rubio campaign. He was again pressed about the issue on Fox’s “Special Report with Bret Baier” on Wednesday evening, which seemed to knock Cruz off balance.
Baier challenged Cruz, bringing back his past comments in which he called his amendment the “compromise that can pass.”
“Bret, of course I wanted the bill to pass — my amendment to pass. What my amendment did is take citizenship off the table, but it doesn’t mean, what it doesn’t mean I supported the other aspects of the bill, which is a terrible bill,” he said, adding the amendment was designed to show the “hypocrisy” of the legislation.
As Cruz’s campaign spent much of Wednesday facing questions that forced them to relitigate his position on the amendment, Rubio was on the attack — not just muddying the waters on immigration issues but sharpening contrasts between himself and Cruz on the national security questions that have come to dominate the Republican race. Now fully engaged, the fight between these two 44-year-old senators could increasingly dominate the primary from this point forward and may presage a long and nasty two-man race for the GOP nomination.
Since the debate ended Tuesday night, Rubio’s campaign and super PAC have been working hard to focus on that gulf between Rubio’s interventionist tendencies and Cruz’s more cautious, if still tough-talking, approach.
On Wednesday morning, while Rubio took to the nation’s television airwaves to hit Cruz, the super PAC supporting Rubio’s candidacy also took aim at the Texas senator. In an email to donors, Conservative Solutions PAC chairmen Warren Tompkins and Jon Lerner spent four paragraphs disparaging Cruz’s debate performance; and then, in the fifth paragraph, looked to draw attention to Cruz’s use of the term “America First,” an isolationist dog whistle to many seasoned political observers, in summing up his foreign policy approach.
“Now, for people who don’t know history, that term is unobjectionable. But Ted Cruz is no dummy,” Tompkins and Lerner write. “He knows what he’s saying when he calls for an “America First” policy. “America First” was the pro-German organization in the 1940s that advocated keeping America out of World War II. It was also the phrase used by Pat Buchanan in his isolationist campaign in 1992.
“Cruz should explain why he is choosing to describe his position in the same way as noted isolationists in American history,” the email continues. “And he should explain why his voting record against our intelligence capabilities and military funding, and his position in favor of anti-American dictators is not in keeping with those harmful chapters in our history.”
A number of conservative foreign policy hands immediately took note of Cruz’s use of the “America First” phrasing in real time Tuesday night. “I’m still stunned Cruz used the phrase ‘America First,’ knowing full well its resonance,” John Podhoretz tweeted. “Big gaffe from @tedcruz ‘I believe in an America first foreign policy.’ So did Charles Lindbergh,” tweeted Eli Lake.
Cruz didn’t press his own case publicly, beyond a few tweets, until an afternoon news conference in California, where he slammed Rubio’s more interventionist approach to foreign policy and aimed to cast him as soft on immigration. He also defended his use of the “America First” phrasing. “It is not intended to be a historical reference,” he said at the news conference, going on to add that it’s instead meant to “hearken back” to the “clear-eyed foreign policy focused on American interests” embodied by Ronald Reagan.
The focus on the phrasing is part of a larger attempt by Rubio’s team to cast Cruz not just as an isolationist at a time when growing foreign threats have many conservatives longing for a more muscular U.S. foreign policy, but also as an “isolationist hawk”—a candidate, who, Rubio’s campaign will try to show, is trying to be all things to all people.
Cruz, during the debate Tuesday night in Las Vegas, attempted to thread a delicate needle on foreign policy, vowing repeatedly to “carpet bomb” ISIS into oblivion while expressing a reluctance to get the U.S. bogged down in the Middle East—and making his case largely in tandem with Rand Paul. Rubio’s campaign wasted no time linking Cruz and Paul, referring to them in a fundraising pitch to supporters blasted out right after the debate as “the isolationist tag team duo Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.”
“You know, Ted stood up there and said, ‘I’m gonna utterly destroy ISIS,’ Rubio said Wednesday morning during an appearance on Fox News Channel. “Anyone can say that. What are you gonna do it with? And when you support a budget like he does, that dramatically cuts defense spending, when you vote against every defense authorization bill ever presented before you, how can you argue that the bill that pays for the military, that funds our troops and the Iron Dome, how can you then stand there and say that? ‘I’m gonna utterly destroy ISIS,’ but I’m not gonna pay for or support what it would take to utterly destroy ISIS.”
Cruz has continued to vote against the annual defense spending bill, he explained Tuesday night, “because when I campaigned in Texas I told voters in Texas that I would oppose the federal government having the authority to detain U.S. citizens permanently with no due process. I have repeatedly supported an effort to take that out of that bill, and I honored that campaign commitment.”
Rubio, who has been criticized on the trail for skipping Senate votes, was the only senator absent from the roll-call vote passing the legislation this year.
Cruz also faced unhelpful headlines Wednesday morning when Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he had directed his staffers to scrutinize debate transcripts to see if Cruz possibly released classified information about the NSA’s metadata surveillance program on the debate stage. “Any time you deal with numbers … the question is ‘is that classified or not’ or is there an open source reference to it,” Burr said.
By Wednesday afternoon, Burr’s staff was walking back his comments, telling reporters that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not, in fact, investigating Cruz’s statements.
Seung Min Kim, Nolan D. McCaskill and Nick Gass contributed to this report.