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Rubio Looms Large as Cruz Launches Tour

Embarking on a weeklong tour of southern states, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz finds himself on the defensive as Sen. Marco Rubio continues pecking away at Cruz's stands on immigration and foreign policy.

U.S. Senators and GOP presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz, left, and Marco Rubio.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

LAS VEGAS — Reporters did not even have to ask.

Before taking questions here Thursday morning, Ted Cruz volunteered a "moment of simple clarity" for the crush of media itching to ask about his increasingly nasty fight with Marco Rubio over immigration. 

"I oppose amnesty. I oppose citizenship. I oppose legalization for illegal aliens," the Texas senator declared. "I always have and I always will."

Cruz's assertiveness — more than usual from a characteristically self-assured candidate — showed just how much he has been put on the defensive in recent days by Senate colleague Rubio as the two feud over their respective roles in the 2013 immigration reform debate. Rubio's campaign has aggressively worked to show that Cruz's history on the issue is not that different from Rubio's, a claim Cruz categorically rejects.

Cruz further escalated his response to Rubio's attacks Thursday by taking to the airwaves in Iowa with a new TV ad.

The 30-second spot touts Cruz's role in fighting the same immigration efforts in which Rubio had a lead role. "Securing our borders and stopping illegal immigration is a matter of national security," Cruz says in the ad, which refers to the "Republican establishment's Gang of Eight amnesty plan" without naming Rubio. 

Yet in the wake of the fifth GOP debate Tuesday in Las Vegas, the Texas senator has not been able to quell the immigration questions raised by Rubio and his campaign. Those questions, which have been coming at a near-hourly clip from Rubio's people, will likely follow Cruz as he sets out on a weeklong tour of mostly southern states aimed at flexing his campaign's organizational muscle.

For weeks, the two freshman senators have sparred over what Cruz likes to call the "meat of politics": policy differences, particularly on foreign policy and immigration. But on Thursday it became more apparent than ever that the ripostes have expanded to include critiquing how the other candidate is running his campaign. 

Without mentioning Rubio by name, Cruz suggested Thursday his Senate colleague is trying to run for president without getting his hands dirty, opting for national media exposure over retail campaigning in the early voting states. It is an argument Cruz and his allies have been suggesting for weeks, especially after Rubio's campaign manager was quoted as saying his candidate can reach more Iowans with an interview on Fox News than he can with a trip to the state. 

On Thursday, though, Cruz delivered the argument with a new forcefulness. 

"Nobody is going to win this presidential campaign by camping out in New York and Washington, D.C., and running a media campaign," Cruz told reporters before a rally in Las Vegas. "There are some [candidates] that believe that their path to victory is courting the Washington establishment, is courting the big-money donors all day long, and is hoping that their friends in the media can just push a narrative."

Cruz continued: "If any of the candidates believe they can hide from the grassroots, they can avoid the difficult questions about their own records by staying in the safe environs of a TV studio in New York or Washington, D.C., I don't think that's going to work. That's not what the American people are looking for."

The Rubio campaign has started to zero in on its own perceived vulnerability with Cruz's strategy, implying the Floridian has a better shot than any rival — including Cruz — does at winning each of the first four early voting states. 

"We're competing everywhere. I don't know that Sen. Cruz necessarily is," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told reporters after the debate. Asked where exactly Cruz is not competing, Conant replied he could not speak to Cruz's strategy, but "we don't see him in New Hampshire" that often. 

Moments earlier, Cruz campaign chairman Chad Sweet had denied to reporters in the same room that the senator was de-emphasizing the Granite State. "We're absolutely not writing off New Hampshire," Sweet said.

Campaigning Thursday in Las Vegas, Cruz laughed at the Rubio campaign's suggestion he is not "competing everywhere" before a reporter could finish his question. "From day one we've been running a national campaign," Cruz insisted.

The Rubio campaign, looking to further stoke the narrative, made sure reporters saw a report Thursday that said Cruz's strategy has "meant near-total neglect of New Hampshire." 

Throughout the race, Cruz has visited New Hampshire almost as often as Rubio, making 39 stops to Rubio's 40, according to one count. But more recently, Cruz has not been as visible in the state as Rubio, making his last trip more than a month ago. 

Cruz is not expected to return to New Hampshire before the end of the year. On Thursday morning, he embarked on a seven-day swing through 12 cities in nine states — a fly-around blitz the campaign is calling the "Take-Off With Ted Cruz Country Christmas Tour." The pre-Christmas barnstorm is geared toward reconnecting with Cruz supporters in places that vote in the March primaries, including a group of mostly southern states set to hold their nominating contests on the first of the month in what is being billed the "SEC primary."

Kicking the tour off Thursday morning at a retirement community in Las Vegas, Cruz drew a crowd — more than 300 people — and media contingency commensurate with his growing perch as a top-tier candidate. 

Cruz largely stuck to his months long stump speech but offered a little more tough talk than usual on the issue that has so bitterly divided himself and Rubio: illegal immigration. He vocally renewed his call to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities, or municipalities that refuse to enforce federal immigrations laws.

"I may have to take Obama's executive-order pen and make very clear to each of those Democratic politicians doing that you've got that choice. What do you value more? Defying federal immigration laws or continuing to receive federal taxpayer dollars?" Cruz said. "If you frustrate our immigration laws, you receive no federal money. And if you're here illegally, you receive no welfare." 

Cruz was set to continue the weeklong tour with another rally Thursday evening in St. Paul. Over the next six days, he is scheduled to go on to a half dozen other states: Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Texas is not on the itinerary, but Cruz is expected to hold fundraisers and at least one public event in his home state before the end of the year.

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz