Here’s phase two of Rubio’s plan to parry Cruz’s attacks on the Gang of Eight by convincing voters that Cruz is sort of a RINO himself. Phase one, of course, was claiming that he and Cruz have similar positions on immigration, which isn’t true writ large but may be true on the narrow but important question of whether to legalize illegals. Rubio’s all for that; Cruz, despite pushing an immigration plan that would dramatically beef up enforcement, remains conspicuously silent on the subject.

Phase two is claiming that Cruz and Rand Paul are birds of a feather when it comes to stopping the NSA from fighting terrorism. Cruz voted for the USA Freedom Act back in June, which replaced key provisions of the Patriot Act — most notably section 215, the statute used by the feds to justify collecting metadata from Americans’ phone records in bulk. The USA Freedom Act puts the metadata in the hands of telecom companies instead of the NSA and it requires the feds to go to court and get a warrant now if they want data on a phone number that was used to contact a terrorism suspect. On the other hand, it does nothing to stop the NSA from gathering foreign data, including programs which “while ostensibly targeted at foreigners nonetheless collect vast amounts of American communications.” It also restored the Patriot Act’s “lone wolf” and roving wiretap powers before they lapsed. In short, the USA Freedom Act was a compromise between Rand-Paul-style strong-form civil libertarianism and ongoing counterterrorist surveillance in the digital age, leaning towards the latter. Paul voted against the bill because he thought it didn’t go far enough to protect Americans’ rights. Rubio voted against it because he thought it went too far in tying the government’s hands by eliminating section 215.

That’s a mighty arcane dispute on which to hang a primary talking point but the shorthand version of it isn’t bad, especially right after a major terror attack on the west — Ted Cruz, says Rubio, voted to weaken American intelligence, period. If you’re a standard hawkish conservative trying to decide between them and haven’t already been scared away from Rubio over immigration, the idea that Cruz is some sort of Snowden sympathizer might help you decide. (Cruz, the “conservatarian,” has been about as cagey on Snowden as he has on legalizing illegals.) On the other hand, how likely is it that anyone’s deciding on this issue when there are more current signifiers of hawkishness being debated right now? Anyone who’s worried about Cruz being soft on terror will pay more attention to his bill seeking to ban Syrian Muslim refugees from entering the U.S. In the meantime, Rubio had better be careful that he doesn’t turn an ally in the Senate into a frenemy by dumping too much on the USA Freedom Act. That Act was the baby of Mike Lee, who co-sponsored a tax reform bill with Rubio. Both Rubio and Cruz would love to have Lee’s endorsement (in the unlikely event that he plans to make one), especially Rubio given the shot of conservative cred that would give him. Now, suddenly, in the name of hitting Cruz, Rubio’s grumbling that Lee’s Act weakened national security. That didn’t escape the attention of Conn Carroll, formerly editor of Townhall Magazine — and now communications director for none other than Mike Lee:

Conant, Pounder, and Conda are top Rubio advisors. Look at it this way, though: Rubio’s being admirably true to his brand here, even if this attack backfires. He’s going to be every inch the Bush-style interventionist leader as president and makes no bones about it, to the point where he’s willing to jab at a bill sponsored by his buddy that achieved modest surveillance reform at best. If you want the most muscular possible counterterror policy, both abroad and here at home in the form of government data monitoring, he’s your guy. If not, look elsewhere.