It wasn’t a rivalry many saw emerging in the 2016 presidential race.
While Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have different views on many topics, they have key factors in common – they both rose in politics thanks, in great part, to support from Tea Party groups and other conservatives, they are the same age, and they have Cuban ancestry (Cruz’s father is a Cuban immigrant, both of Rubio’s parents came here from Cuba).
They also were not seen as being a threat to each other in the election – Rubio had a strong showing in many earlier polls and also in later polls after each GOP debate, while Cruz remained far from the top four in most national polls of likely GOP voters.
But after the most recent GOP debate, the fourth thus far, Cruz’s star has risen, and now a Rubio-Cruz showdown appears to be brewing as the Texas Republican has started taking shots at his fellow senator, according to Politico.
On Thursday, Cruz, who has taken a hard line on how to deal with illegal immigration, assailed Rubio for the Florida lawmaker’s key role in a 2013 comprehensive immigration reform the Senate passed that would, among other things, provide a path to legal status for undocumented people.
Asked by radio host Laura Ingraham about Rubio’s tougher stance on immigration after the 2013 measure, Cruz said: “Talk is cheap. You know where someone is based on their actions.”
Hours later, Rubio’s campaign released a statement essentially calling Cruz hypocritical on immigration. It included an excerpt from an interview Cruz had with the Texas Tribune in 2013 in which he is reported to have said that he opposed a path to citizenship, but not allowing them to stay altogether.
The excerpt also said Cruz did not embrace former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s support for “self-deportation,” which would result after making life here too hard for those who lack legal documents.
After the 2013 bill stalled in the House of Representatives, Rubio – who was heavily criticized by conservatives for being a key so-sponsor of the measure – backed off its main objectives, and began to press for tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
Cruz criticized Rubio for voting against amendments that he and other members of Congress tried to push through to tighten enforcement before other aspects of the bipartisan bill could be implemented.
“He opposed every single one of them—every single amendment,” Cruz said, adding that some of the amendments Rubio opposed called for denying public assistance to undocumented people and stepping up funding for the Border Patrol.
Many conservatives believe that billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s popularity will fade as the primaries approach, and many pundits say that Cruz’s strong performance in the last debate and command of policy issues give him a real shot at doing well in the primaries.
In the Tuesday debate, moderated by Fox Business Network, Cruz took issue with Rubio’s support for subsidies for the sugar industry, an important part of Florida’s economy.
“Sugar farmers farm on roughly 0.2 percent of the farmland in America and give 40 percent of the lobbying money,” Cruz said. “That sort of corporate welfare is why we’re bankrupting our kids and grandkids. I would end the subsidies to pay for defending this nation.”
Cruz also inserted himself into the discussion about the nation’s undocumented immigrants, and how they should be addressed, after Trump vowed to deport them all and build a wall along the Mexican border.
Cruz, whom the moderators did not ask for his views on immigration, said Republicans will lose the presidential race if they offer "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants.
"For those of us who believe people ought to come to this country legally, we should enforce the law. We’re tired of being told it's anti-immigrant – it's offensive," Cruz said. "I am the son of an immigrant who came to this country legally from Cuba to seek the American Dream, and we can embrace legal immigration while believing in the rule of law."
Framing this as an economic issue for many Americans, Cruz asked how the press would feel if "people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down wages."
His view since he announced his campaign is that a successful immigration bill can’t be comprehensive and must start with border security.
Many political experts see Rubio as the presidential candidate most likely to get a cross-section of GOP support. Though he rose up the political ranks on the momentum of conservative support, he has been embraced by the so-called establishment GOP.
“Marco Rubio is in a unique position to unite the various factions of the Republican coalition,” said Whit Ayres, Rubio’s pollster, to Politico. Ayers said that focus groups show Rubio gaining more backing from conservatives, in addition to more moderate Republicans.
Cruz has not wavered from his staunchly conservative corner, and regularly denounces the establishment GOP, including party leaders in Congress.
Political experts believe that if Carson and Trump, who have been weak in debates when they turn to substantive policy questions, lose steam, Cruz can pick up their supporters. Yet Rubio’s likability is also a factor, they say.
"There’s this growing sense that Rubio’s the best candidate and that people are getting pretty comfortable with him,” said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist, according to Politico. “You can feel Carson and Trump losing support. Cruz is a quiet tide in the night that is beginning to wash out the base on Donald Trump. Now, I think, people are looking at Cruz as the candidate who’s best positioned in a lane to run with Rubio and give him a real fight.”