The winner of the Rubio-Cruz immigration fight? Donald Trump

Open warfare between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz broke out during Tuesday’s debate. The topics were (1) intelligence gathering to protect the national security and (2) immigration.

As I wrote immediately after the debate, it’s the immigration clash that will count most. Both issues matter greatly to Republican voters, but disagreements about immigration matter more than disputes about particular data collection methods.

This is why Rubio was desperate to claim that his immigration dispute with Cruz is minimal. He attempted to do so by pointing to an amendment Cruz proposed that would have enabled illegal immigrants to obtain legal status. Cruz countered that his amendment was, in effect, a poison pill designed to kill Rubio’s Gang of Eight proposal and demonstrate its hypocrisy.

When this dispute began simmering, I bought Cruz’s “poison pill” defense. Since then, statements Cruz made in 2013, when the immigration bill was still alive, have come to light that strongly suggest the Texas Senator truly wanted illegal immigrants to have a path to legalization (other than leaving the U.S. and starting over). Indeed, during an interview with Bret Baier, the normally silver-tongued Cruz became nearly tongue-tied trying to explain away one such statement.

However, Rubio is still the loser of this debate. Unlike the Florida man, Cruz never co-sponsored immigration reform with Chuck Schumer, but instead opposed that legislation. And Cruz, though he seems to have favored amnesty (in the sense of a path to legalization), never favored a path to citizenship, as Rubio did. To me, and probably a great many other Republicans, granting citizenship to those who violated our immigration laws is significantly more egregious than permitting them to remain here with legal status.

But this doesn’t mean Cruz is the winner. Why? Because Donald Trump has insisted that illegal immigrants can never become legal unless they leave the country. This is a harder line position than what Cruz favored in 2013.

For the first time, Cruz seems vulnerable to his right on the key issue of immigration. And he’s vulnerable to the frontrunner in the race.

Cruz, though, has probably understood for some time that his prospects depend on Trump faltering at some stage. For now, his campaign will probably be satisfied if he has struck a major blow against Rubio, the candidate most likely to stand his way if the Trump bubble bursts.