LAS VEGAS — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio clashed over immigration and foreign policy Tuesday night in a series of confrontations that have been building for weeks.
In the fifth Republican presidential debate, the two freshman senators traded barbs over their competing views for the United States' role in the world and Rubio's involvement in immigration reform efforts two years ago. While they tangled over foreign policy most extensively, it was immigration that found Cruz and Rubio taking their sharpest tones yet toward one another.
Rubio repeatedly argued that his immigration views are not unlike Cruz's, pointing to a number of measures Cruz has supported at some point in time. Cruz shot back that Rubio was trying to "muddy the waters" to obscure his own role in the Gang of Eight legislation that has become anathema to the GOP base.
"He was fighting to grant amnesty and to secure the border, and I was fighting to secure the border," Cruz said, referencing a writer's recent suggestion that Rubio was like the "arsonist" and Cruz the "firefighter" in the immigration debate.
Rubio did not let up, though. Asked more than once by Rubio if he rules out "ever legalizing people who are in this country illegally now," Cruz ultimately responded: "I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization."
On foreign policy, the two senators butted heads over the scope of U.S. intelligence programs, when the United States should topple dictators and how to fight the Islamic State terrorist group. Rubio specifically argued Cruz's tough talk on the Islamic State — he has pushed for "carpet bombing" the group — is not backed up by his voting record.
"You can't carpet bomb ISIS if you don't have planes and bombs to attack them with," Rubio said, raising Cruz's year-after-year opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which funds the military.
Cruz countered that he has voted against the NDAA because he promised Texas voters he would "oppose the federal government having the authority to detain U.S. citizens permanently with no due process." Cruz also noted he has worked on efforts over the years to strip that element out of the NDAA.
In the lead-up to the debate at The Venetian Hotel and Casino, much discussion centered on whether Cruz and real estate developer Donald Trump would finally butt heads after a months-long alliance of sorts. Not only did that not happen, Trump appeared to walk back his criticism Sunday that Cruz has acted like "a little bit of a maniac" in the Senate.
"He has a wonderful temperament," Trump said. "He’s just fine. Don’t worry about it."
"You better not attack me," the billionaire added to a delighted-looking Cruz as the discussion moved on.
Earlier in the debate, Cruz did go a little further than usual in distancing himself from Trump's proposal to ban Muslim immigration to the United States. Asked why he disagrees with Trump on the issue, Cruz said many people understand why Trump has proposed what he has, but Cruz has introduced legislation that is "more narrowly focused" on ensuring terrorists do not reach the shores of America.
"In this instance, there are millions of peaceful Muslims across the world in countries like India where there is not the problem we are seeing in ... territory controlled by al Qaeda or ISIS," Cruz said. "It's not a war on faith. It's a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us."
Cruz still managed to strike a more characteristically friendly tone toward Trump while discussing his border security proposals.
"We will build a wall that works," Cruz said, "and I'll get Donald Trump to pay for it."