Marco Rubio, Rand Paul trade shots over Cuba on TV, Twitter, Facebook

Sen. Rand Paul, left, and Sen. Marco Rubio.
Sen. Rand Paul, left, and Sen. Marco Rubio. AP

As they jockey for possible presidential bids, Republican senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are taking aim at each other on TV, Twitter and Facebook over Cuba policy.

Rubio, a Cuba hardliner from West Miami, has attacked President Obama’s effort to reestablish ties with Cuba. The pugnacious Kentuckian thinks the president made the right move.

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Rubio promptly said Thursday of Paul during a TV interview.

“Senator @marcorubio is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat,” Paul fired back Friday on Twitter “I reject this isolationism.”

The unexpected donnybrook exposed a latent tension in the Republican Party, with Rubio representing the conservative mainstream establishment and Paul playing the role of libertarian.

Even if the two don’t run against each other, the conflict could presage trouble in the U.S. Senate’s GOP caucus, which is now in the majority. Incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he supports Rubio’s hardline on Cuba, but he has said that he backs his fellow Kentucky senator for president. Adding to the potential chaos, tea party Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas might run for president as well.

The conflict between Paul and Rubio erupted Thursday, a day after President Obama and Raúl Castro jointly announced efforts to normalize relations. Rubio quickly became a fixture in the news media as he led the GOP efforts to criticize what he describes as a bad capitulation by Obama.

Rubio, other Republicans and Cuban-American lawmakers have vowed to use Congress’ power of the purse strings and confirmations to fight Obama’s efforts.

But while Republican presidential candidates lined up to echo Rubio’s position, Paul on Thursday sided more with Obama, noting many U.S. farmers support the idea of more Cuba trade because it’s a new market for their crops.

“The 50-year embargo just hasn’t worked,” Paul said in a Thursday radio interview with Tom Roten of News Talk 800 WVHU in Huntington, West Virginia. “If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working, and probably, it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.”

Paul pointed out that many younger Cuban-Americans support his point of view, which polls — including a new survey from Bendixen & Amandi International — indicate is true.

Later that evening, on FOX, Rubio blasted Paul for being ignorant.

“Like many people, he has no idea what he’s talking about,” snapped Rubio. “I would expect that people would understand that if they just took a moment to analyze that, they would realize that the embargo is not what’s hurting the Cuban people. It’s the lack of freedom and the lack of competent leaders.”

Rubio went on to explain that the embargo has numerous “holes in it” and has not been a true embargo. So it hasn’t failed, contends Rubio, because it has never fully been in force.

Then, on Friday afternoon, Paul hit back on Facebook: “Seems to me, Senator Rubio is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat. I reject this isolationism. Finally, let’s be clear that Senator Rubio does not speak for the majority of Cuban-Americans.”

At 12:45 p.m., Paul started to troll Rubio on Twitter.

“Hey @marcorubio if the embargo doesn’t hurt Cuba, why do you want to keep it?” Paul asked first.

“.@marcorubio what about the majority of Cuban-Americans who now support normalizing relations between our countries?” Paul concluded, adding a link to a story concerning a Florida International University poll this summer about Cuban-American attitudes.

Rubio didn’t respond.

Instead, Rubio’s pal, CNN commentator and Coral Gables resident Ana Navarro chimed in on Twitter and punned off of Paul’s profession as an eye doctor: “Paul may know more re glaucoma & cataracts than Rubio, but trying to debate Marco on Cuba is short-sighted. He’s playing out of his league.”

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