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Marco Rubio, under attack for supporting comprehensive immigration reform, bested Ted Cruz, the reigning maestro of slippery debate rhetoric.

For a man of Cruz’s lawyerly self-regard, getting out-lawyered by a guy who didn’t even attend a minor Ivy is an affront on par with Mozart upstaging Salieri. 

Rubio continues to atone for the fact that he coauthored and voted for legislation that would’ve provided a citizenship guarantee to unauthorized immigrants. But Cruz is vulnerable here, too, and in a fascinating twist, his vulnerability stems from the procedural extremism and cleverness that makes him so popular among conservatives. During the Senate debate over Rubio’s immigration bill, Cruz introduced an amendment that would’ve stripped Rubio’s pathway to citizenship out of the bill. But at the same time, it would’ve preserved a permanent legal status for current unauthorized immigrants. “Amnesty Lite” versus Rubio’s “Amnesty Genuine Draft.”

It stands to reason here that Cruz doesn’t actually support either version of amnesty as a matter of first principles. If there were no Senate immigration bill, he wouldn’t have introduced his own reform legislation that included legal status for the undocumented. What Cruz was really doing was trying to shatter the pro-reform coalition. To kill the bill. But along the way, he said nice things about permanent legal status as an alternative to eventual citizenship, and that has allowed Rubio to claim he and Cruz don’t have dramatically different positions on immigration reform when in fact they do.

In most circumstances Cruz would do what he always does when his conservatism is questioned, and flash his chastity belt. But in this case, thanks to Rubio, he has much more explaining to do. Cruz has built a persona around his supposed orthodoxy and candor. Other pols might be conservative, but he’s the most pure, and most forthright. Whether he genuinely supports legalizing millions of immigrants, or just faked it to defeat the greater amnesty, Cruz undermined one of those two character traits. Rubio forced him to. It was a clever lawyer’s trick. And Cruz fell for it. He never saw it coming.