DAPHNE, Ala. — Ted Cruz, locked in a heated battle with Marco Rubio over their immigration records, received an assist Saturday afternoon from one of the most hardline opponents of illegal immigration in the U.S. Senate.
Introducing Cruz at a rally in the Mobile area, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama offered an extended defense of the Texas senator's push to undermine support for the so-called "Gang of Eight" immigration reform bill that Rubio helped author in 2013.
"I believe that without the vigorous opposition of Ted Cruz, this bill likely would have passed," Sessions said. "Ted Cruz stood with me, Steve King and Mike Lee and others that opposed this bill. Don't let anybody tell you any different."
The Alabama senator went on to put the Gang of Eight debate firmly in the context of the presidential race, saying the 2016 election will determine whether the "crowd that pushed that bill" ends up in the White House.
Sessions did not mention Rubio by name, but it was clear he was referring to the Florida senator's weeks-long efforts to portray Cruz as not as tough on illegal immigration as he claims to be. Rubio's campaign was at it again hours before Cruz's rally, circulating a 2013 interview in which the Texan suggested "compromise" was possible in the debate over how to deal with the 11 million people in the country illegally.
Rubio's campaign has zeroed in on an amendment proposed by Cruz that would have stripped a path to citizenship out of the legislation while leaving in place a path to legal status. Sessions said Cruz's amendment was by no means an endorsement of a path to legal status but a gambit to show the bill's authors were not willing to compromise.
"The plan was they vote down any amendment, no matter what the amendment was," Sessions said, echoing Cruz's defense of the amendment in recent days. "They were going to do that because they said they had achieved through these secret meetings a delicate balance ... and they had the perfect bill."
During the rally and in remarks to reporters afterward, Sessions said he was puzzled at why Rubio's campaign was targeting Cruz for the amendment.
"I'm just flabbergasted, really," Sessions said during the rally. "I mean, don't they know how he voted?"
"They were on polar opposites," Sessions later told reporters. "Everything in the Gang of Eight bill was Rubio-created. He helped write it, he defended it, he went on television advocating for it."
Yet even as he went to bat for Cruz, Sessions seemed to acknowledge the issue was causing some trouble for Cruz. "There seemed to be confusion about it," Sessions said of the amendment, adding that he believes Cruz is getting a "raw deal" on the issue.
Tim Dodson, a truck driver from Silverhill, Alabama, said after the rally that Rubio's criticism has not affected his faith in Cruz to secure the border if president.
"I know the truth," Dodson said of Cruz's immigration record. Rubio "wants to win, plain and simple. He's up against — what? — 14 other guys and he wants to win. It's kind of win at any cost."
Sessions has previously defended Cruz against Rubio on Gang of Eight in media appearances, but his remarks Saturday afternoon were made before a raucous audience of 1,300 who seemed most animated by the issue of illegal immigration. Cruz returned Sessions' praise during his remarks, offering his Senate colleague up for a Cabinet post in his administration.
"And for anyone who wonders, 'Can we really, really secure the border?' I got three words for you: Secretary Jeff Sessions," Cruz said. "You want to talk about a Homeland Security secretary who will go down there and build the wall himself."
After the rally, Sessions took the suggestion in stride.
"He was making a point," Sessions told reporters. "He's going to get a good person that's committed to ending the lawlessness at our border."
The Alabama senator expressed openness to making an endorsement in the GOP race for the White House but said he was still weighing his options. Sessions drew attention when he appeared onstage with one of Cruz's GOP rivals, billionaire Donald Trump, during a massive rally in August at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile.
Cruz's rally in Daphne came amid a week-long tour of nine mostly southern states that started Thursday. Cruz is scheduled to hold another event Sunday in Alabama, a rally in Birmingham, then head on to Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma.