Rubio accuses Cruz of flip-flopping on immigration, defense and everything else

Near the end of Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio unleashed a sharp verbal attack on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, accusing his GOP rival of flip-flopping on a series of issues, including immigration.

“You used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say that you’re against it,” Rubio said, turning to address Cruz. “You used to support a 500 percent increase in the number of guest workers. Now you say that you’re against it. You used to support legalizing people who were here illegally. Now you say that you’re against it. You used to say you were in favor of birthright citizenship. Now you say that you’re against it.”

The Florida senator didn’t stop there.

“You used to support TPA [trade promotion authority]. Now you say you’re against it,” Rubio said. “I saw you on the Senate floor flip your vote on crop insurance, because they told you it would help you in Iowa. And last week, we all saw you flip your vote on ethanol in Iowa for the same reason. That is not consistent conservatism — that is political calculation.”

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Rubio then pivoted to a pitch for why he would be a better commander in chief than Cruz.

“When I am president, I will work consistently every single day to keep this country safe — not call Edward Snowden, as you did, a great public servant,” Rubio said, referring to the former National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower currently living in asylum in Russia. “Edward Snowden is a traitor. And if I am president and we get our hands on him, he is standing trial for treason.”

Rubio added: “Every single time that there has been a defense bill in the Senate, three people team up to vote against it: Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. In fact the only budget you’ve ever voted for, Ted, in your entire time in the Senate, is a budget for Rand Paul that brags about how it cuts defense. Here’s the bottom line, and I’ll close with this: If I’m president of the United States and Congress tries to cut the military, I will veto that in a millisecond.”

Cruz appealed to the Fox Business moderators for a chance to respond.

“He had no fewer than 11 attacks there,” Cruz said. “I appreciate your dumping your oppo-research folder on the debate stage. But I will say at least half of the things Marco said are flat-out false.”

Cruz, who currently leads the Republican field in Iowa, had to talk through boos from the South Carolina debate crowd to explain what those things were.

“Today, standing on this stage, Marco supports legalization and citizenship for 12 million illegals,” Cruz said. “I opposed and oppose legalization and citizenship and by the way, the attack he keeps throwing out [there] on the military budget, Marco knows full well that I voted for his amendment to increase military spending to $697 billion. What he said — and he said it in the last debate — it’s simply not true. And as president, I will rebuild the military and keep this country safe.”

While Rubio appears to get the best of Cruz in that exchange, the Florida senator faces a steep hill to climb to catch Cruz, at least in Iowa. The Texas conservative, at 25 percent, has a 13-point lead on Rubio among likely GOP caucus-goers, according to the most recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll.

The latest GOP national poll shows Rubio in third place, trailing Cruz by 7 points.