By Eli Stokols
December 18, 2015
The three men leading Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign were huddled in a Las Vegas war room when Ted Cruz walked into their trap.
Their candidate had been sparring with his rival on the GOP debate stage for two hours already. But when Rubio ad-libbed an interrogation of Cruz’s past position on legalizing undocumented immigrants, they knew the Texas senator wouldn’t be able to contain himself.
“I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization,” Cruz declared.
In that moment, Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan, top adviser Todd Harris and communications director Alex Conant recognized what they’d accomplished because they’d been planning this exchange all along. Not only had Cruz just contradicted his own statements from 2013, he’d used words that gave them the opening they’d been wanting to turn their rival’s anti-establishment narrative on its head.
Joe Pounder, the GOP opposition research guru who recently joined Rubio’s campaign, was sitting back in Washington on a stockpile of quotes and video clips of Cruz’s 2013 statements. And they didn’t even have to talk about it.
The decision was made: it’s time to launch.
Immediately, the campaign readied a response that was months in the making. Donors inboxes rang with emails recapping the exchange with Cruz, while reporters received opposition research backing up Rubio's claim that Cruz had shifted his position. And the next morning, Rubio appeared on Fox News and seized on the ambiguity Cruz had left him.
Cruz went hours before responding during a press conference in California. Then he appeared Wednesday evening on Fox News and stammered as he struggled to square his support for his own 2013 amendment, which scrapped the bill’s full pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but left open a path to legal status, with his current statement that he’s never supported legalization.
Pressed by host Bret Baier, Cruz was forced to acknowledge that he was merely being disingenuous—ostensibly supporting an amendment to “improve” the bill that, as only Beltway insiders may have understood, was truly aimed at killing it. “Bret, you’ve been around Washington long enough, you know how to defeat bad legislation,” Cruz said, effectively admitting he was engaging in the very brand of Washington political theater that, as an anti-establishment candidate, he often rails against. On Thursday, Cruz attempted to brush off his 2013 amendment as “a bluff.”
In one 24-hour news cycle, the tables had been turned. Rubio’s campaign had managed to put Cruz on the defensive over the issue most expected would be the Florida senator’s Achilles heel.
“Rubio’s offense is his best defense there, no question,” said Curt Anderson, an unaligned GOP operative who had guided Bobby Jindal’s campaign. “They clearly did their homework and they were ready for it. I think it was well played.”
According to conversations with operatives close to the Rubio campaign, his staffers knew from the get-go that the Florida senator’s work on the immigration bill as part of the Gang of Eight was his most glaring weakness. But it was also clear from some of their earliest meetings that they saw an opening to go after Cruz. They focused their opposition research efforts on that target and saw promise in Cruz’s complicated positioning on legalization.
As they compiled data on Cruz, building on the file amassed by former Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst during his unsuccessful 2012 senate primary run, Rubio’s team sensed an opportunity—not just on the immigration issue, but to needle a candidate they viewed as overconfident and untested, especially when pressured by opponents’ attacks.
“He’s never run in a real race, and never been vetted. When he ran in Texas, once he won the primary, he was through,” said a source close to Rubio’s campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He’s going to be subject to far more scrutiny now.”
Rubio’s campaign was surprised when he wasn’t forced to defend his immigration position in the fourth debate last month in Milwaukee. Heading into Tuesday night’s showdown in Las Vegas, they sensed it would finally come up—and they’d even made a decision to bring it up themselves, to lance the boil once and for all.
Rand Paul attacked Rubio on the issue early on, but the low-polling Kentucky senator was not in his crosshairs. He was waiting for Cruz, now Rubio’s primary competition (with Donald Trump) for the GOP nomination, to take him on.
So when Cruz tried to attack after Rubio’s response to a moderator’s question on immigration, the Florida senator shifted into counter-attack mode, questioning Cruz about his own past support for legal status and musing that he’s often “puzzled” at Cruz attacking him on immigration when their positions are the same.
In battling over the particulars of immigration, Rubio isn’t likely to score himself any points—but that’s not his objective. “I don’t think it means anything for Rubio, but it could mean something for Cruz in that he’s handled it poorly,” Anderson said. “I think the only way to go at Cruz is to go at his genuineness or lack thereof, and the fact that everything is contrived. In that sense, I think it’s smart.”
According to sources close to the campaign, the unifying thread of Rubio’s case against Cruz won’t be immigration or national security or any single policy issue. It’ll be his perceived tendency to say different things to different audiences and an attempt to convince voters that the candidate purporting to be a straight-talking anti-establishment outsider is anything but.
On Thursday, Rubio portrayed Cruz’s position on immigration as that of a craven politician, trying to convince primary voters of his conservative credentials while leaving himself wiggle room to tack back to the center if he wins the nomination. “I think his hope was, once he got into the general election to then start talking about legalization as a way to attract voters,” Rubio said.
Cruz has spent the last two days explaining his amendment to the immigration bill, calling Rubio’s assertion that he supported legalization “ludicrous” and repeatedly mentioning his alignment with Sen. Jeff Sessions, a staunch opponent of the Gang of Eight proposal. But he has yet to explain previous statements professing support for the bill itself other than that it was just a political gambit meant to torpedo it.
On Thursday night, all three major broadcast networks featured reports on Cruz's interview with Baier and the sparring between him and Rubio on immigration policy; although Cruz's campaign is downplaying the story's impact. "We turned the corner this morning," said Rick Tyler, Cruz's campaign communications director. "All day, conservative media have been rallying to our side and defending Ted Cruz. They're not about to let a moderate like Marco Rubio tell untruths about the real conservative in the race."
Now, the Rubio game plan is not to let up. And Pounder and his team believe they have ample material to fill in a composite sketch of Cruz as a political opportunist: his praise for Edward Snowden, opposition to the NSA’s former metadata surveillance program and his closed door comments criticizing Trump even as he continues to show remarkable deference to him in public.
Just as Cruz has started to appear unbeatable in Iowa, just as Hillary Clinton’s campaign and top Republicans begin to acknowledge the obvious path for Cruz through the primary and the possibility that he could win the nomination, even amidst nagging questions about Rubio’s early state strategy—Rubio’s successful immigration broadside against Cruz has given some establishment figures confidence that he might be on the right track.
“Cruz's response [to Rubio] highlights his greatest weakness: he's just too slick and self-aggrandizing,” said Stuart Stevens, a GOP strategist who guided Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “Cruz is that guy in high school who really, really wanted to be homeroom president,” “Marco Rubio is the guy who knew it was a joke. I'd bet on the latter.”
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