Rubio-Cruz Debate Clashes Will Shape GOP Race

Rubio-Cruz Debate Clashes Will Shape GOP Race
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The last Republican debate of 2015 will likely have meaningful implications for the year to come.

The rivalry that has flared over the past month between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio played out on the prime-time debate stage Tuesday night in Las Vegas, spotlighting consequential divides within the party over national security and immigration.

Though Donald Trump has been and remains the dominating force in the GOP primary, the two freshman senators have emerged as the top alternatives to the frontrunner -- and fierce competitors for the No. 2 spot in the race. The clash between them figures to shape the course of the Republican contest with less than seven weeks before voting begins.

With Ben Carson fading in the polls, and failing to significantly redeem himself on the debate stage Tuesday night, the race seems to have narrowed to Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, with Chris Christie as a possible wild card, depending on the outcome of the New Hampshire primary in February.

Another issue that could influence the campaign is that Trump said at the end of the often contentious debate that he would not stage an independent bid for the presidency if he fails to win the GOP nomination. After months atop the polls, this week reaching his highest numbers yet, and faced with the increasing difficulty of mounting a third-party run, Trump committed to running as a Republican. Though he backed away from a previous pledge, the billionaire businessman said this time he wouldn’t change his mind. That decision raises the question of whether party leaders will be as reluctant to weigh in on controversies entangling him.

Despite trailing Trump and Cruz in most polls, Rubio got a taste Tuesday night of what it’s like to be the frontrunner. Both Cruz and Rand Paul pounced on the Florida senator for what they characterize as his neoconservative approach to foreign policy -- from defense spending to government surveillance programs to intervening in foreign wars.

Rubio wore the assault as a badge of honor. “The isolationist tag team duo Ted Cruz and Rand Paul tried to take on Marco. They got beat, badly,” read a campaign fundraising email sent after the debate.

Given heightened concerns over terrorist threats, that stance figures to resonate better with primary voters than the views of Cruz and Paul on this issue. But the Texas senator did not shy from the opportunity to defend himself and take Rubio’s charges head-on.  

Cruz again hit his fellow senator for advocating for regime change in war-torn countries where terrorist groups later emerged. “One of the problems with Marco's foreign policy is he has far too often supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama undermining governments in the Middle East that have helped radical Islamic terrorists,” he said.

Cruz also argued that the USA Freedom Act he supported -- legislation that replaced the controversial Patriot Act and was signed by the president last year -- not only curbed the government's bulk data collection program, which opponents argue is an infringement on civil liberties, but also strengthened tools used by law enforcement to go after terrorists.

Rubio said Cruz was wrong for supporting the bill, which he argued makes it more difficult to conduct proper intelligence gathering necessary to prevent attacks.

“This is not just the most capable, it is the most sophisticated terror threat we have ever faced,” he said. “We are now at a time when we need more tools, not less tools. And that tool we lost, the metadata program, was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal.”

Paul jumped in to argue that stricter immigration restrictions could have prevented recent and future terrorist attacks at home, and accused Rubio of opposing increased border security.

Rubio has positioned himself as the field’s foreign policy expert, and his fluency on the issues has served him well in the debates and more generally in the stump, as the focus of the campaigns and public attention increasingly turn to terrorism.

But Rubio’s history with immigration reform figures to be a liability among the conservative voters he is courting. And it’s an issue he hadn’t been pressed much on in past debates. Asked Tuesday whether he still supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a provision in the 2013 comprehensive reform bill Rubio co-authored, the Florida lawmaker launched into his usual argument prioritizing border security. When pressed on the citizenship provision, Rubio said: “I personally am open to allowing people to apply for a green card. That may not be a majority position in my party, but that's down the road.”

Rubio has tried to shift the attention away from this potential vulnerability by arguing that Cruz has supported legalization for undocumented immigrants and moved to expand the H-1B visa program. Cruz has withdrawn his support for these measures and accused Rubio of trying to “muddy the waters.” He also characterized his opponent’s support for the “Rubio-Schumer” immigration bill as a national security issue, pointing to a provision that gave the president unilateral authority to admit refugees.

Cruz then took an even more conservative position than he has in the past on immigration, saying, “I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.”

And in an interview with CNN following the debate, Cruz suggested deportation as a way to address the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.

Throughout the night, Paul helped his fellow senator in attacking Rubio over the 2013 immigration bill.

Cruz has been steadily gaining in Iowa, taking the lead in recent polls, and is aiming to capitalize on his growing evangelical support there. He has secured endorsements from religious conservative power brokers in the state, and hopes a successful showing in the caucuses will propel him through the March 1 Southern primaries -- for which he is primed with an extensive ground operation. Cruz’ hardening stance on immigration figures to be an advantage in Iowa.

Meanwhile, Rubio’s foreign policy credentials figure to play well in New Hampshire, where he is currently in second place, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. The senator is hosting a rally in the state on Wednesday.

But Christie is also proving to be competitive there and could cause problems for Rubio in locking up the establishment support. Throughout Tuesday’s debate, the New Jersey governor tried to differentiate himself from Rubio by promoting the qualities of governors over senators.

“If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate,” Christie said during a discussion of national security. “I mean, endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.”

The rivalry between Rubio and Cruz on the main stage was also noteworthy because it was marked a departure from the days when Jeb Bush was considered the Florida senator’s main competitor.

Bush had his best performance to date, provoking Trump at several turns. But it may be too late for him to gain ground. A year after announcing his intentions to run for president and millions of dollars spent, Bush is lagging in the single digits.

“Donald is great at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president,” Bush said in one of a handful of jabs at Trump. “He would not be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe.”

Trump said Bush has a failed campaign.  “It's been a total disaster. Nobody cares,” he said. “And frankly, I'm the most solid person up here.”

Towards the end of the night, when asked about the independent run Trump has been dangling over the GOP leadership, the real estate mogul said he was pleased with how the party had treated him of late.

“I am totally committed to the Republican Party,” he said. “I feel very honored to be the frontrunner.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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