I’m tempted to accuse Team Walker of feeding this bit of oppo to MSNBC to take some heat off of their own rolling clusterfark on immigration. But I’m sure author Benjy Sarlin, a smart guy who follows this issue for the network, hit on it himself. (Wouldn’t Walker’s team have leaked it to Fox to maximize Cruz’s embarrassment among conservatives?) To a lefty, the tangle of GOP primary politics on amnesty must be irresistible: Why is Scott Walker taking a beating on the right for supporting legalization when Ted Cruz, Mr. Conservative, also supported legalization in the form of work permits as recently as 2013? How can Ted Cruz be the “anti-amnesty” candidate in the field when his position — at least as of two years ago — is basically indistinguishable from Walker’s and (gasp) Jeb Bush’s?

Sarlin went to Team Cruz with a question. Does he still support work permits for illegals or, like Walker, has he shifted further to the right just in time for the GOP primaries? Answer: Yep, he’s still on the legalization express.

Asked by msnbc about where Cruz stands now on legalization, campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said that the senator has been “consistent” and confirmed that the views he expressed in the Tribune had not changed. While Frazier said Cruz believes a path to citizenship “flies in the face of the rule of law,” she declined to apply the same label when asked about legal status in the right circumstances.

“I think his main priority is dealing with the border security component and making sure that we know who is coming into the country and making sure that we have control over who is coming into the country and then we can deal with what to do with the people who are already here,” she said…

[Mark] Krikorian told msnbc Cruz’s position easily fits the bill [of amnesty].

“It’s the same thing: ‘I’m against amnesty, but amnesty doesn’t include giving people work permits,’” Krikorian said. “Really? The Obama didn’t give amnesty to all those people.”

That last bit is a fun new addition to the many Cruz/Obama comparisons floating around political media since Cruz’s campaign launch this week. It’s an amazing testament, though, to how deeply GOP pols fear the growing Latino demographic that even Ted Cruz — Ted Cruz — refuses to go whole hog in pandering to righties on this while otherwise running for president as the most complete, principled conservative since Ronald Reagan. Somehow, of the roughly 1,400 Republican candidates set to jump into the race this year, not a single one (that I know of) takes the Romney line that self-deportation is the solution to illegal immigration. The next time you hear a Democrat grumble that the party hasn’t “evolved” at all since its loss in 2012, remind them that work permits for illegals is now the baseline even for alleged “fire-breathers” like Ted Cruz.

All of this makes me wonder, in fact, whether Cruz is really eyeing the presidential nomination or the VP slot. If he’s thinking about the former, he might as well embrace self-deportation and be the total conservative dream figure that tea partiers want him to be. Banging the drum on that would distinguish him sharply from every other man in the field in the eyes of border hawks, of which there are many in the primary electorate. Sure, it would hurt him in the general election, but as a relative longshot for the nomination, he can’t worry about that now. Might as well go full metal conservative, try to win the primaries, and then let the chips fall where they may against Hillary. The fact that he resists dogmatic conservatism on this point (and really only this point) means he’s willing to trade a notable bit of extra right-wing cred for a little cred with moderates, something that doesn’t obviously benefit him in the primaries — as a presidential candidate. As a vice-presidential candidate, though, it benefits him a lot. Jeb Bush might balk at putting Cruz on the ticket if he’s running around talking up self-deportation; having him on record as pro-legalization, though, makes him more salable to the Latino voters that Jeb will be trying to impress. And of course righties will forgive Cruz his heresy on this point since he has fewer heresies than anyone else running. Is any tea partier going to be less excited about the thought of Ted Cruz being one heartbeat away just because he supports work permits? C’mon.