Ted Cruz is notoriously detested by his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.
And on Thursday night, in the final Republican presidential primary debate before the Iowa caucuses, two of Cruz’s fellow senators let it show. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul criticized Cruz in exceptionally harsh terms, essentially calling him a self-righteous poseur, and even a liar.
In a debate that was more political event than reality TV show because of the absence of frontrunner Donald Trump, one of the most contentious portions of the back-and-forth came when the Fox News moderators introduced the issue of immigration.
Fox’s Megyn Kelly put Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, on the spot by asking him if he had favored a path to citizenship after opposing it during his 2010 campaign for the Senate.
Rubio was on the defensive, but this is by now well-trod ground. Many Republicans who don’t support Rubio because of his role in helping to pass a comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate in 2013 have either ruled him out because of it or have made their peace with it.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, however, criticized Rubio for running away from the bill after it left the Senate and moved to the House, where it went nowhere. It was a sign that Bush, lagging in most polls for months now, feels more comfortable than when he was a frontrunner in standing his ground on the issue, since the implication of his critique was that the comprehensive immigration bill should have passed.
Rubio, however, turned out to be merely an appetizer for Kelly. Fox had played video clips of Rubio’s past statements to illustrate the issue. And it did the same with Cruz’s comments in 2013 about how he wanted the bill to pass.
He now claims he was not telling the truth then. It’s an odd assertion, but it allows him to claim that he has remained pure in opposition to immigration reform during his time in the Senate.
Rand Paul, the U.S. senator from Kentucky, expressed disgust with Cruz over this.
“What is particularly insulting, though, is that he is the king of saying, ‘Oh you’re for amnesty,’” Paul said. “Everybody is for amnesty except for Ted Cruz. But it’s a falseness, and that’s an authenticity problem. Everybody he knows is not as perfect as him.”
Rubio picked up on this line of attack, and delivered one of the sharpest critiques that any candidate has delivered against another.
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on … that he’s the most conservative guy, and everyone else is a RINO [Republican in Name Only],” Rubio said. He turned to Cruz, and said: “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to do or say anything in order to get votes.”
Rubio pointed out that Cruz had worked for President George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and had helped design his immigration program, a position more moderate than Cruz’s present stance.
“Now you want to trump Trump on immigration,” Rubio told Cruz. “But we’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who’s willing to say or do anything to win an election.”
Cruz at first mocked Rubio. “You know, I like Marco. He’s very charming, he’s very smooth,” he said.
But for the most part, Cruz seemed caught off guard by the intensity of Rubio’s attack, and responded with standard talking points about how he had upheld his promise to fight against “amnesty” — a catch-all term if there ever was one — and how Rubio had not.
National Review’s Rich Lowry tweeted afterward: “This is the debate when Rubio let his full disdain for Cruz show.”
In the aftermath of the exchange, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scored some points and positioned himself as an outsider by making fun of the senatorial debate.
“This is why you need to send someone from outside of Washington,” Christie said. “I need a Washington-English dictionary converter.”
But Cruz and Rubio were the two candidates with the most at stake Thursday night. Cruz was the leader in Iowa for a time earlier this month, until Trump regained the lead. Rubio is third in the polls in Iowa, behind Trump and Cruz.
Cruz at one point complained to the moderators that their last four questions had essentially asked other candidates to “attack” him. But this drew mostly scorn. Many in the crowd booed. And Fox News moderator Chris Wallace raised his eyebrows.
“It is a debate, sir,” Wallace said.
(Politics homepage photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)