Ted Cruz targets Marco Rubio in immigration offensive

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz addresses the Sunshine Summit in Orlando on Friday.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz addresses the Sunshine Summit in Orlando on Friday. AP

The sermon in the church of Ted Cruz began Friday with a thunderous roar from a candidate who seemed to have transformed into a preacher (“Wow! Wow!”). He briefly switched into Spanish (“¡Muchísimas gracias!”). And he concluded with the message that the country’s ills perpetuated by Democrats will only worsen if more Democrats — in Cruz’s eyes, “the illegal aliens” — are granted the right to vote.

“If you’re supporting amnesty, you’re supporting Common Core,” Cruz intoned at the Faith Assembly of God, an Orlando megachurch where he spoke for 53 minutes. “If you’re supporting amnesty, you’re supporting the Obama-Clinton abandoning of the nation of Israel. … If you’re supporting amnesty, you’re supporting the Ayatollah Khamenei having nuclear weapons in Iran.”

The several hundred believers waving campaign signs that matched the stickers on the lapels and the T-shirts on their backs rose up, as if unable to contain their fervor.

But Cruz’s real target was someone else, who wasn’t there and he named only once, another 44-year-old Cuban-American senator running for president: Marco Rubio.

Cruz seized the great divider in Republican politics — immigration — to stake out a position as the conservative alternative to rival Donald Trump, but also to define himself, in the long run of the presidential race, as the anti-Rubio. If the primary race is to come down to Cruz vs. Rubio, then Cruz wants the choice to be stark.

It’s Democrats who want to reform immigration, Cruz argued, to sign up more voters and win more elections.

“What Republican in their right mind would support that?” Cruz asked. “Rubio!” shouted some people in the crowd.

As part of a two-page policy proposal, Cruz vowed to end birthright citizenship, immediately rescind both of President Barack Obama’s policies set by executive authority protecting some people from deportation, and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Though he boasted the plan was “detailed,” it didn’t say what Cruz would do with the millions of people already in the country illegally. Neither did Cruz when a reporter asked him about it directly.

Cruz went beyond promising a crackdown on illegal immigration: He also pledged to stop the growth of legal immigration and suspend for six months a visa program, dubbed H1-B, for highly skilled foreign workers. The Texas senator pushed for the program’s expansion in the past but said he changed his mind after learning of reported abuses.

On Thursday, Cruz had accused Rubio — one of the “Gang of Eight” Senate members who authored comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013 — of rejecting amendments to the bill to secure the border.

“Talk is cheap,” Cruz said on the conservative Laura Ingraham radio talk show.

Friday at the Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit in Orlando, Rubio fired back.

“I am puzzled and, quite frankly, surprised by Ted’s attacks, since Ted’s position on immigration is not much different than mine,” Rubio told reporters. “He is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. If he has changed that position, then he certainly has the right to change his position on that issue, but he should be clear about that.”

Cruz was one of several vocal critics of the Senate bill who proposed an amendment that would make immigrants in the country illegally eligible for legal status but not citizenship, as the legislation envisioned. Rubio’s campaign argued the amendment meant Cruz favored some sort of legalization.

“I laughed out loud at that,” Cruz said Friday on the Mike Gallagher radio show. “That’s like Obama saying my position is the same as his on Obamacare. … It is laughingly, blazingly, on its face false.”

At the heart of the sniping is Cruz’s attempt to brand Rubio a moderate and perhaps split the Republican primary electorate between the two men. Rubio supporters aggressively pushed back at the characterization.

“That label won’t stick,” predicted former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami. “Marco is not a moderate. Marco is a conservative on everything you can imagine.”

Cruz is trying to draw that distinction because he has nothing else to use against Rubio, according to Diaz de la Portilla: “What’s sticking out between the two? Marco Rubio knows how to get things done.”

Both Cruz and Rubio were elected with tea-party backing, but Rubio upset much of that base when he sponsored the immigration bill.

“I’m not a big Rubio fan, mainly because I think he’s going to be easily co-opted by the establishment,” said Zach Davis, a 43-year-old computer salesman from Orlando who attended Cruz’s rally. “Ted Cruz is definitely stronger than Marco Rubio on many things, mainly immigration.”

Rubio accused Cruz of flip-flopping. Rubio’s critics say he backtracked on the comprehensive approach and has avoided getting pinned down on policy specifics — including during Tuesday’s presidential debate, in which moderators successfully exposed the immigration rift among candidates but somehow failed to bring Rubio into the conversation.

Taking credit for making the issue central to the campaign is Trump, who launched his candidacy in June by slamming some Mexican immigrants as criminals.

“Had I not talked about illegal immigration, I don’t even think you’d be talking about it,” Trump bragged Friday evening. “I watched Ted Cruz. And I watched Marco Rubio. They’re fighting over who’s tougher. Well, let me tell you something: I was tougher when it wasn’t very politically popular to be tough, and I took a lot of heat.”

Herald/Times staff writers Alex Leary and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.