A primary war over immigration was inevitable and now it’s finally here. Free advice: Duck and cover.

Via the Right Scoop, enjoy six minutes below of Cruz laying Rubio out this morning on Laura Ingraham’s show, replete with a scriptural reference. Not only was Rubio’s Gang of Eight bill the same old comprehensive garbage that screwed border hawks in 1986, Cruz says, but Rubio joined with the other seven members in opposing all of his amendments to strengthen the security parts of the bill. Which is true: Every time a comprehensive immigration bill comes together in the Senate, the bipartisan coalition behind it agrees to kill off amendments for fear that letting one through from either party will operate as a poison pill. If Cruz’s security amendments had been adopted, Democrats who would have otherwise supported the bill would have bailed and it would have failed. (For Democrats, stronger immigration enforcement is a dealbreaker.) Part of the deal in joining the Gang for Rubio, McCain, Graham, and Flake was systematically defeating any amendment that would upset the balance of the deal they’d struck with Schumer, even if it came from the right. So Cruz’s amendments went down the drain. And now Cruz is going to rub Rubio’s face in it.

There’s an inevitable counter to this attack coming from Rubio, though. In fact, as I was in the process of writing this post, he already delivered it. If you can’t argue that your opponent is as far towards the center as you are, argue that he’s pretty darned far towards the center regardless. Voila:

Is he right? Why, yes he is. At last check, at least:

Cruz opposed the Senate bipartisan immigration bill and its proposed path to citizenship that passed in 2013, but he also indicated to The Texas Tribune that year that he supported giving some undocumented immigrants permission to stay in the country with more limited legal status. He noted that an amendment he had filed to strip the Senate legislation of its citizenship component deliberately “did not change the underlying work permit from the [bill]” that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the country without fear of deportation…

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. She described his amendment to the Senate “gang of eight” bill as an effort ”to improve a very bad bill” that he ultimately opposed.

While Frazier said Cruz fought the bill’s path to citizenship because it “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.

That’s from an MSNBC piece published this past March. True, Cruz doesn’t support a path to citizenship as Rubio does, but many border hawks will tell you that’s a distinction without much of a meaningful difference. The key for citizenship is giving illegals a foot in the door with legalization; once they have the right to stay here, the right to become citizens will eventually follow as Congress comes under pressure to make it happen. Cruz has also been careful not to go too far right in his broader rhetoric about immigration, knowing that he’s got a real shot at the nomination and will be hit hard on this subject in the general election. Trump has called for deporting all 11 million — but not Cruz. Scott Walker flirted with the idea of reducing legal immigration, a la Jeff Sessions — but not Cruz. Lots of conservatives talk about immigration as a cultural issue — but not Cruz, or at least, not nearly as much as he talks about it as an economic issue. (Which he did two days ago at the debate.) By focusing so much in his public comments on opposing a path to citizenship and demanding more border security, Cruz has craftily managed to convince a lot of righties, I think, that he’s coming at this issue roughly from the same place that Trump and Tom Tancredo. Not so, as some of his competitors in the field have started to notice. Rubio’s going to make sure now that a lot more people notice.

So then, everyone ready for the big fight to come? Time to choose sides. Apropos of nothing, in my experience Rubio fans on Twitter are more defensive of their guy than Cruz fans are of theirs, which surprised me at first. Cruz, after all, is running as a populist and it’s the populist heroes (Trump, Palin) who tend to find themselves with cults of personality. The passion for Rubio among his supporters comes, I think, mostly from their sense that he’s the platonic ideal of what a “modern” GOP should be offering voters to expand the tent — young, optimistic, minority, rhetorically non-incendiary, conservative but not too conservative. It’s not so much that he should be the nominee — no one really wants to nominate a first-term senator with no executive experience — as that he’s what the nominee should be like. Maybe he’ll govern brilliantly and/or conservatively or maybe not, but he can win, and Republicans who can win a national election are in short supply lately. For all the comparisons between him and Obama, that’s a key difference. Hopenchange nuts thought O was a messiah for America, the un-Bush whose historic candidacy would usher in a new age, but they could have won with Hillary too and they knew it. Rubio fans, I think, see him as the party’s only hope, the one guy left who can appeal to both wings of the party and win a general election. No wonder they’re fiercely protective of him.

Update: Cruz campaign spokesman fires back about the work-permit amendment to the Gang of Eight bill mentioned in the excerpt above.

In other words, Cruz wanted to show that the Democrats only cared about making illegals into (Democratic-voting) citizens, not letting them stay here without citizenship to work. He offered the amendment to expose their true motivations, not because he really believed in it. Great, I replied! Does that mean Cruz really does oppose legalization for illegals? No response. What’s happening here, I think, is Team Cruz being too cute by half: Right now they’re telling conservatives that that amendment was just a gimmick, whereas next year, if Cruz is the nominee and needs to impress swing voters in the general, they’ll be citing it as proof that he believes in legalization and isn’t nearly as hardline as those mean Democrats keep saying.

It’s true that Cruz has said that he opposes legalization before the border is secured; that’s a key difference between him and Rubio, whose Gang of Eight bill would have legalized illegals even before security had been achieved. But what about afterward? If Rubio cooked up a comprehensive bill that really would ensure security before legalization, would Ted Cruz vote for that? How come I can’t get a straight answer?