Big moment for desperate Rubio: He crushes Cruz for his immigration flip-flops, but are GOP voters paying attention?

Rubio makes most of his last chance, hitting Cruz's wavering on immigration. But it may be too little, too late.

By Amanda Marcotte
Published January 15, 2016 5:15AM (EST)

Marco Rubio's campaign was supposed to be the party's savior, especially as it became apparent that Jeb Bush, true to his roots as a trust fund baby, was collapsing in the face of real competition. But Rubio's campaign has been lackluster, with concerns being raised that he simply doesn't have the ground game amassed by Ted Cruz, Batman villain. Thursday night's debate quite possibly was his last real opportunity to turn the ship around.

If it can be done, he did it in his full-throated attack on Cruz's flippity-floppy record on immigration. Cruz presents himself to hungry conservatives as the real deal, a true conservative whose allegedly authenticity is rooted in his evangelical Christianity. He may be crazy, but he seems like he really means it, and that perception of purity is really doing it for the right-wing base this year.

But truthfully, he's even more a chameleon-like politician than most, a man devoid of any true beliefs besides his rock solid belief that he deserves to rule us all. And Rubio launched an extremely effective attack on this, using the issue that appears to be riling the right up more than most this year, immigration.

During the debate, Rubio brought up Cruz's misrepresentation of his history on immigration. Cruz tried to wave it off in his usual way, with a condescending chuckle that implies that all attacks on him are mere "children saying silly things," but the punch obviously landed. In no small part, it's because Rubio rattled off, apparently from memory, Cruz's history of dancing around on this issue, a history that runs in direct contrast with Cruz's claim that he's taken a leadership position in cracking down on immigration.

Ted Cruz, you used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say that you're against it. You used to support a 500 percent increase in the number of guest workers, now you say that you're against it. You used to support legalizing people that were here illegally, now you say you're against it. You used to say that you were in favor of birthright citizenship, now you say that you are against it.

Cruz tried to dismiss this as silly stuff ginned up by Rubio's opposition researchers, but in truth, it probably came from a recent Slate article by William Saletan that laid out, in a thoroughly researched timeline, how Cruz, far from being a leader for the hardline anti-immigration position, has wiggled and danced around, clearly more interested in angling for advantages than actually standing up for a coherent position. Cruz uses legalistic language to claim something that is clearly false — that he never supported giving undocumented immigrants some kind of legal status — and basically leans on the complexity of the record to avoid being called out on it.

But that didn't stop Rubio and while his litany of Cruz's sins was probably not easy to parse for most viewers, the fact that he was able to roll it out was still pretty compelling. It clearly unnerved Cruz, as it should. His entire campaign is built on billing him as the last honest conservative, and exposing the fact that he's actually less principled and more slimy than most politicians could do irreparable damage.

Will it work? Hard to say. It came late in the debate, when most viewers are too tired to be paying much attention. And even though Rubio framed it simply enough, it's still a complex argument, which can be a turnoff. And, as Saletan notes, Cruz is a spectacular liar who is fully capable of bamboozling his way out of this.

But it was Rubio's last real chance to such some of the mystique out of the Ted Cruz image, and convince voters to settle for him. He made a good show of it. It was a truly impressive political attack and suggested he'd be formidable in a general election. If this doesn't work, nothing will.

Watch a recap of the debate below:
[jwplayer file="" image=""][/jwplayer]

Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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