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Can Marco Rubio Beat Ted Cruz on Immigration?

In broader terms, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both now competing for the Republican presidential nomination, seemed solidly defined on opposite ends of the political battle over immigration.

Cruz was seen as the hardliner, Rubio the appeaser tied to the now infamous 2013 Gang of Eight legislation. With the two Senators headed for a one-on-one battle for the nomination in the view of many pundits, Rubio has gone on the attack, attempting to undermine Cruz’s immigration hardliner reputation. Rubio’s team released the video (below and in the Tweet below), claiming it shows Cruz supported the Gang of Eight legislation by offering an amendment to same. That’s true.

However, at one minute into the video, Cruz does say that his amendment would “remove” a path to citizenship for illegals, while at the same time, “bringing them out of the shadows.” That’s a nuanced position Cruz now seems to be claiming was meant to kill the legislation. In the video he claims his amendment was meant to get it through the House – where, for the record, it subsequently died without the Cruz amendment.

Rubio has also pointed out Cruz’s past proposal to greatly expand the H-1B visa program – a program widely unpopular with the GOP’s base. Meanwhile, Rubio is now trying to shift his own position to distance himself from the Gang of Eight effort and immigration reform without significantly greater border security. From CNN:

Cruz, meanwhile, has positioned himself as tough on illegal immigration and border security — and on Thursday moved to similarly disavow his own prior position on the H-1B visa program.

But Rubio noted that Cruz had his own proposals on that immigration bill in 2013, and drew him close to deflect some of the criticism. His campaign spent much of Thursday sharing with reporters video and audio clips where Cruz suggests that he has not been as much of a hardliner as he fashions himself today.

“When the Senate bill was proposed, he proposed legalizing people that were here illegally. He proposed giving them work permits,” Rubio said. “He’s also supported a massive expansion of the green cards. He’s supported a massive expansion of the H-1B program – a 500% increase. So, if you look at it, I don’t think our positions are dramatically different.”

Meanwhile, as stated up front, Rubio has his own serious problems given his past positions. Changing them significantly for the politics of the primary may not be an easy sale; however, there’s no denying his solid rhetorical and political skills that could help him pull it off.

Rubio has now even gone so far as to claim people will have to be deported. In reality, that could mean anything from a few criminals, to significant numbers of illegals – basically, what Rubio seems to want to do is muddy the waters around him and Cruz on the issue. To the extent he can achieve that, it may help him with the more conservative portion of the GOP base, assuming he also convinces them that he is somehow more electable than Cruz.

“We are going to have to deport some people, otherwise if you’re not going to enforce the law, what’s the point of having those laws?,” Rubio said on Fox’s “America’s Newsroom.”

If nothing else, Rubio has apparently forced Cruz to shift on the visa issue. How this fight ends may rest in how deeply voters really want to go to understand the nuance behind Cruz’s position and how much they believe any explanation.

Republican primary voters will likely always harbor some skepticism around Rubio on immigration given his past record. But if he can pull Cruz down off his immigration pedestal – it certainly can’t hurt Rubio’s chances in any one-on-one battle perhaps to come. What is absolutely certain is that the fight between the two is now engaged.

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