As Ted Cruz swept through the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center last Saturday, the Texas Republican characteristically brushed off a question that would only grow in significance in the coming days: What's the biggest difference between Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio?
"There will be a time for policy distinctions," Cruz told a reporter as he hurried into the main hall to address the Texas Federation of Republican Women.
That time, it seems, has arrived. In debates, during interviews and on the campaign trail, Cruz is increasingly leaving little doubt that he has Rubio on his mind — if not in his crosshairs — as he seeks to present himself as the consensus choice of conservatives for the White House.
The long-simmering feud boiled over Thursday, with the candidates and their campaigns trading barbs over their positions on immigration, an issue on which Cruz has long presented himself as most aligned with the GOP base. The dustup, which Cruz telegraphed in the fourth Republican debate Tuesday, marks his first real substantive clash with a fellow GOP candidate — and could signal a shift away from his months-long strategy of generally playing nice with Republican foes.
The escalation is playing out amid growing speculation that the GOP primary could come down to Cruz and Rubio, two freshman senators who rode waves of Tea Party support into office — Rubio in 2010, Cruz in 2012. Cruz has not rejected the scenario, last week calling it a "plausible outcome" and saying he was "very confident" he could best Rubio in a head-to-head matchup.
Cruz's attitude is partly self-serving. He has long envisioned the primaries ending with a showdown between a conservative Republican and a moderate Republican. For a time, that moderate Republican appeared to be Jeb Bush, but with the former Florida governor's candidacy fading, Cruz is beginning to nudge Rubio into that role.
Cruz took to the airwaves Thursday to level his sharpest criticism yet against Rubio, taking the Floridian to task for his membership in the "Gang of Eight" legislators who set out to reform the immigration system two years ago. Those lawmakers, including Rubio, "fought tooth and nail to try to jam this amnesty down the American people’s throat," Cruz told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.
In the interview, Cruz boasted of his own measures to secure the border — and how Rubio "opposed every single one of them — every single amendment." And Cruz was not buying Rubio's assertion that he learned from the Gang of Eight fiasco that the American people do not trust the federal government when it comes to immigration law.
"You know, look, it’s not like people were quiet in sharing their concerns at the time," Cruz told Ingraham. "It’s not like one had to engage — it’s not like this was rocket science."
Campaigning Thursday in South Carolina, Rubio downplayed any major schism between himself and Cruz on immigration, bringing up a number of amendments Cruz offered during the Gang of Eight debate.
"He proposed legalizing people that were here illegally," Rubio said. "He proposed giving them work permits. He's also supported a massive expansion of the green cards. He's supported a massive expansion of the H-1B program — a 500 percent increase. So if you look at it, I don't think our positions are dramatically different."
Cruz's campaign dismissed the suggestion that he was ever in favor of amnesty, a loosely defined term generally affixed to any Republican who supports some version of a policy that lets people in the country illegally stay here. Referring to Rubio's remarks in South Carolina, Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said, "That is absolutely false. No one fought harder to stop Gang of Eight's amnesty than Ted Cruz."
Rubio's campaign specifically pointed to Cruz's Amendment No. 1322, which the Texan's office said would "ensure that illegal immigrants who are given legal status under this bill are not given a path to citizenship." Long before Cruz started tussling with Rubio, the Texan's critics, including those in his own party, had cited the amendment as proof he may be opposed to a path to citizenship but has not ruled out an avenue to legal status.
Rubio's campaign did not want reporters to forget that late Thursday, circulating a 2013 interview in which the Cruz made explicit that his amendment would ultimately give legal status people in the country illegally. "The 11 million who are here illegally would be granted legal status once the border was secured — not before — but after the border was secured, they would be granted legal status," Cruz told NPR at the time.
At the same time Cruz has gone on the offensive against Rubio over the Gang of Eight bill, he has taken a new measure of heat for his involvement in the legislation. Among Cruz's amendments was a proposal to increase fivefold the number of visas available for highly skilled workers, an idea that has drawn the ire of some immigration hard-liners with an increasing focus on the issue in the presidential race.
In recent months, Cruz has distanced himself from that proposal, citing growing concerns that companies are taking advantage of the H-1B program. When he is asked about the amendment nowadays, Cruz typically reminds audiences that he and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. — one of the GOP's most strident opponents of illegal immigration — are preparing to introduce legislation that would dramatically reform the program.
Cruz made clear Thursday he no longer supports quintupling the number of visas, telling Ingraham that "something has changed pretty significantly from 2013 to today, which is that we have seen serious abuses and serious allegations of abuses by major companies, one after the other." Frazier said he believes any talks about expanding the H-1B program should be put on hold until such problems are fixed.
Cruz's GOP rivals pounced on the shift as politically expedient. Most vocal was former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose campaign flagged Cruz's H-1B amendment in an email titled, "Cruz tough on immigration? Not so fast!"
"I think he's shifting away because it's a very unpopular position to take" in a Republican primary, Santorum said in an interview, adding that problems H-1B visas are not a new. "He can say, 'Well, there's been abuse proven recently,' but the fact of the matter is the program's been what the program's been for a long time," Santorum said.
"The H-1B immigration program, in many ways, is worse than amnesty, and I have no idea why any Republican would support a program that imports foreigners to replace American workers and drives wages lower than the Dead Sea," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in a statement.
The new level of scrutiny comes as Cruz and Rubio find themselves clumped within striking distance of the two frontrunners: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and billionaire Donald Trump. With the holiday season starting in two weeks, the race is set to enter a new stage, especially in a state that Cruz is increasingly prioritizing: Iowa. Cruz's campaign has made its first substantial media buy in the state, reserving more than $150,000 of TV time from Nov. 16 through Dec. 6 in three cities, a media-tracking source said Thursday.
In a sign of his rising profile, the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Correct the Record has intensified its focus on Cruz, most recently blasting his "extreme vision to create an unrecognizable America." In a statement Thursday, Correct the Record spokesman Daniel Wessel said Cruz's bid for the White House "appeals to a small sect of the far, far right-wing, the kind of voters who supported Cruz's pointless crusade to shut down the government when he was first elected."
In media appearances and on the campaign trail in New Hampshire — where Cruz filed Thursday to officially be on the primary ballot — Rubio remains a target. On Friday, Cruz is scheduled to drop in on Rubio's backyard with his first campaign event in Florida, a rally in Orlando.
Immigration is not the only issue on which Cruz has stoked a rivalry with Rubio. During Tuesday's debate, he seemed to go a bit out of his way to tout his opposition to a subsidy program for sugar producers that Rubio supports, calling it "corporate welfare" and reiterating he wants to see it end. In an interview the next morning, Rubio maintained his position that the U.S. economy currently needs sugar subsidies to be competitive on the world stage.
"I'm not going to wipe out an American industry that happens to have a lot of workers in Florida by unilaterally disarming," Rubio said on ABC. "I want us to be able to compete with other countries, but it has to be fair."
Some of the contrasts Cruz has drawn with Rubio have been less veiled. In an interview earlier this month with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, an unprompted Cruz brought up Rubio's vote in favor of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), or the power for President Barack Obama to negotiate a massive trade agreement among 12 countries. Cruz, who reversed his support for TPA in June amid concerns about backroom dealing, told Hewitt "there’s a clear difference in terms of records among the candidates on this."
The remark was not too far off from what Cruz went on to tell the reporter in Lubbock who had asked about his biggest difference with Rubio.
"I think primary voters can tell the difference between a proven conservative, someone who's walked the walk and has been consistent in defending conservative values, and someone who hasn't," Cruz said as he headed to his speech. "I think that's what the primary process is all about."