Senator Marco Rubio of Florida also faced his toughest moments of the race during the latest Republican debate as a top rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, repeatedly questioned his conservative credentials and his judgment on national security and immigration. Though Mr. Rubio at times seemed to gain the upper hand, he looked and sounded rattled as Mr. Cruz portrayed him as lining up with liberals like Senator Chuck Schumer of New York in favoring “amnesty” for immigrants who are in the country illegally…

Trying to defuse criticism over his leading role in the 2013 legislation to offer unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship, Mr. Rubio asserted that Mr. Cruz also wanted to offer legal status to those immigrants.

Mr. Cruz said Mr. Rubio was trying to “muddy the waters” and “raise confusion,” and linked Mr. Rubio to Mr. Schumer and President Obama on the issue.

“I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty” bill, Mr. Cruz said, arguing that to claim his and Mr. Rubio’s records on the issue were the same was “like suggesting the fireman and the arsonist have the same record because they were both at the scene of the fire.”

But when pressed by Mr. Rubio and a moderator on whether he would rule out legalizing undocumented immigrants, Mr. Cruz appeared to leave himself a measure of space.

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That was a rough debate for Marco Rubio. He finally got that long-awaited challenge on his previous support for the “Gang of Eight” immigration-law overhaul, which he handled well enough. But any way you look at it, this puts him to the left of the field on the major animating issue of the campaign. He continually took fire from a surging Ted Cruz and a feisty Rand Paul. He spent much of the night on the defensive.

He acquitted himself adequately enough through all that, sure, but what do we really have to support the idea that this is the guy who can prevent Cruz or Donald Trump from capturing the GOP nod? To unite the factions of the party that recoil at the thought of nominating either Trump or Cruz, Rubio may well have needed a much bigger, better night than the one he had Tuesday…

Maybe it’s because the other guys just kept committing a series of own goals. Or maybe, when we look back at 2016, we will see it as the year when the GOP transformed into something more akin to the populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant parties we’re seeing in Europe—i.e. the kind of party for which Trump or Cruz would be the obvious standard bearer. Either way, this is starting to look like a two-way race between Trump and Cruz, which means Rubio and company are quickly running out of time to show they can win this thing.

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Less than 12 hours after several chippy confrontations at Tuesday night’s GOP debate, Marco Rubio returned to Iowa overnight and quickly defended his past support for comprehensive immigration reform in an interview with NBC News’ Hallie Jackson — despite continued scorn from within his own party over the hotbed conservative sticking point.

“I recognize that my position is not a majority position in my party, maybe not even a majority position in large parts of America,” Rubio told NBC News’ Hallie Jackson in an interview before a rally in Ankeny, Iowa…

“I personally do not believe that it’s good for America to have millions of people permanently living here who can never become Americans, who want to be Americans, who love America, but just can’t become Americans,” Rubio said in the interview. “I personally don’t think that’s a good idea.”

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From the beginning, Rubio has characterized himself as the candidate of a new generation, ready to move the GOP into the 21st century. But while that might have some resonance against Hillary Clinton, it isn’t necessarily what the Republican electorate wants. Obama succeeded with Democrats by offering hope and change, a faith in the country’s progress and forward movement. But Republican voters are different. As I’ve written elsewhere, current Republican worries about immigration, terrorism, same-sex marriage, and many other issues are essentially all manifestations of one feeling, the sense of being profoundly unsettled by the direction the country and the world is moving. For voters who feel like their country is slipping away from them and slipping out of control, change may be the last thing they want to believe in, unless it’s change that simply turns back the clock to a simpler time…

But the idea that Marco Rubio feels out of place in his country is ridiculous, to friend and foe alike. That was supposed to be his whole appeal, that he was the one who wasn’t out of place in the new America. Young, Hispanic (and bilingual), forward-looking, in touch with today and tomorrow, Rubio was supposed to be the one who would lead the party into a bright future, not sit down in a rocking chair with them to pine for the past.

That’s the conundrum Rubio hasn’t yet solved. In so many ways he’s the perfect candidate for Republicans — or at least the best they’ve got — but he’s exactly wrong for where the Republican electorate is right now.

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“But what’s so interesting is what it led to today,” [Krauthammer] continued. ”Rubio was willing to take a hit on an issue he knows he is the least popular with, with the GOP electorate. But he did it in order to be able to ask one question of Cruz — which is always a danger in the debate — as, A, you’re giving up your time; and B, you have no idea what he’s going to say. But what he elicited from Cruz was the statement that he had never supported legalization.”…

“He pretends now that he did that in order to kill the bill,” Krauthammer said. “But it’s clear from the record that he said at the time, repeatedly, and not even in Congress, but even in the meeting at Princeton with one of his old professors, Robbie George, that he wanted to pass the bill but wanted instead of citizenship, legalization.”

Krauthammer predicted this will get Cruz into trouble down the road: ”The fact that he said he never supported it is not a defensible position and that was exposed today. So that was a very complicated chess match between the two. Cruz had the better of it last night. But now he stuck with something he’s going to have to explain away that is not very easy.”

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Cruz [said at Princeton in 2013], “I want to see common sense immigration reform pass. But the only way to do so is to find a middle ground, and right now, they’re unwilling to do so. And I think many of the Hispanic advocacy groups, in particular, are being played. They’re being played by partisans who want the deal to fail, because they want to use it as a campaign issue. And I hope that strategy doesn’t work.”

George followed up, “If I’ve understood you correctly, you would actually grant current illegal immigrants, or at least some substantial portion of those who are here unlawfully, permanent status? Green card status? So this is not a deportation bill, proposal or self-deportation as Romney called it, or anything like that. The disagreement is about whether they should be granted citizenship, through some mechanism, through some process, not whether they should be moved from illegal status to legal status?”…

Asked directly, Cruz had every opportunity to state that he didn’t intend for his amendment to be adopted or for the Gang of Eight bill to pass at all and in fact replied the opposite. At no point did he describe his amendment as a poison bill or procedural maneuver to derail the bill. He had every chance to say he opposed a legal status for illegal immigrants and didn’t do so.

At this point, there is no reason to believe that in 2013, Ted Cruz opposed a path to legalization (not citizenship) for illegal immigrants.

***

A few weeks later , during a debate [on the Gang of Eight bill] on the Senate floor [in 2013], Cruz repeated his belief that his amendment “is the compromise that can pass.”

Cruz called on those who opposed him to “demonstrate a commitment not to politics, not to campaigning all the time, but to actually fixing this problem, to finding a middle ground.”

Cruz even denied at the time that his amendment was a “poison pill.” “My objective was not to kill immigration reform,” Cruz told The Washington Examiner’s Byron York one week after his amendment was voted down.

Arguing that “an overwhelming majority of Americans in both parties wants to see our broken immigration system fixed, wants to see the problem solved, the border secured, and our remaining a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants,” Cruz told York he had been trying “to amend the Gang of Eight bill so that it actually solves the problem rather than making the problem worse.”

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If it were all a big piece of political theater, you’d think Cruz might have made clear that he didn’t support the bill’s legalization component – citizenship or not – and just wanted to make a point. Instead, he kept emphasizing [in 2013] the alleged benefits that would come with his amendment and how important it was to pass it.

“It is…I believe critical to passing this bill to remove the path to citizenship and yet every single Democrat voted on party lines against this amendment,” Cruz said in a floor speech after it failed.

This gave Cruz a gigantic out depending on the political climate. It’s hard to remember today, but in 2013 it was possible to imagine a world in which some type of immigration reform became the GOP consensus and the bigger liability for Cruz was his opposition to legalization. In this scenario, he would have been able to cite his amendment as proof that he was fine with immigration reform in general; he just didn’t like the citizenship piece and a few other components that Democrats included…

Instead, the party moved to the right, and now Cruz is using the exact same amendment to argue that he was leading the charge to kill immigration reform. It’s “heads I win, tails you lose” logic.

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As one might imagine, the veracity of Cruz’s statement rests heavily upon what he means by “legalization.” Had he been pressed further, Cruz would presumably have argued that, unlike Marco Rubio, he has never supported a “path to citizenship.” As far as I can see, that’s absolutely true. But — and this matters a great deal — that’s not really what most Republican voters mean by “legalization,” is it? Over the last few years, that word has been wielded by border hawks as a catch-all criticism of any proposal that would yield governmental recognition of those who are in America illegally. By that standard, Cruz’s asseveration was clearly false. And, one suspects, he knew it…

The bottom line? Somebody is being lied to here…

Coming from anybody in public life, this duplicity would be disappointing. But from Ted Cruz, the self-styled anti-politician, it is disastrous. This is the sort of slimy behavior that we expect from Bill Clinton or Harry Reid, not from the straight-talking, Churchillian foe of all that is unholy about Washington, D.C. There is a time for parsing the difference between “legalization” and “citizenship,” and for debating the strength of “intend to” versus “will never.” But primary season is not it. Now is the summer of strong promises and bold visions. The negotiating can come later.

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It’s not just that Cruz disagreed with Rubio. It’s that his disagreement was laced with biting sarcasm and personal attacks. For many (if not most) of us who are not already in Camp Trump, Rubio is considered to be an acceptable choice for the nomination (if not our first), and only a fool would not concede that he presents the best chance in the general to defeat Hillary. Watching a guy who’s turned turtle repeatedly to a fake conservative insult comic, only to turn around and show some fighting spirit against a guy who is actually conservative was a little hard to stomach…

But instead, people who realize that Trump represents an existential threat to the credibility and future existence of the conservative movement as a political force have been forced to grind our teeth as Cruz – who really has been a champion for our causes – held fire on this charlatan for months. Now we are treated to the spectacle of Cruz treating Rubio in the same way many of us wish he had treated Trump from day one? It’s frankly galling

Whatever you think of his work with the Gang of 8 and his claim that he learned from the experience and won’t repeat it, it does not merit him being treated worse than Trump. Not to someone who is dedicated to the advancement of actual conservative ideals, like I know Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is.

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