HILTON HEAD, SC — Sen. Marco Rubio's opponents have seized on immigration reform as they seek to blunt the surging candidate's momentum, targeting him for his role in negotiating the 2013 reform bill that conservatives revile.
Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both took aim at what they've framed as Rubio's lack of conservatism on the issue over the past 24 hours. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, tried to frame himself as "the only candidate to oppose amnesty," jabbing Cruz in particular for his record on the issue but charging in a release that "Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Rubio all agree that illegal immigrants can remain in America"
But Rubio is hitting back, telling reporters after speaking at an event in Hilton Head, S.C. that every GOP candidate has supported amnesty at one point.
"Everybody on that stage has supported the legalization of people who are here illegally, every single one of them has supported that. Some of them define that as amnesty," he said, adding that he believes amnesty is "the forgiveness without consequence of a violation."
He also hit back specifically at Sen. Ted Cruz, noting the Texan proposed a legalization amendment when the reform bill was being negotiated, and tying himself to Cruz on immigration.
"Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. In fact, when the Senate bill was proposed, he proposed legalizing people that were here illegally. He proposed giving them work permits. He's also supported massive expansion of green cards," he said, following an event in Hilton Head, S.C. on Thursday afternoon.
"I don't think our positions are dramatically different."
His comments mark the clearest signal yet of how Rubio will seek to frame his engagement in the failed 2013 immigration reform effort, which incensed many conservatives because of its inclusion of a path to citizenship.
Indeed, Cruz took aim at the newly-surging Rubio on Wednesday night, unleashing a veiled jab at "a presidential candidate who supports amnesty."
"It is not complicated that on the seminal fight over amnesty in Congress, the Gang of Eight bill that was the brainchild of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama, that would have granted amnesty to 12 million people here illegally, that I stood with the American people and led the fight to defeat it in the United States Congress," Cruz said in New Hampshire.
He added: "In my view, if Republicans nominate for president a candidate who supports amnesty, we will have given up one of the major distinctions with Hillary Clinton and we will lose the general election. That is a path to losing."
And Paul on Wednesday jumped on the attack as well, tying Rubio's broader policy positions to the presence of illegal immigrants in the U.S.
"Illegal immigrants are getting welfare payments by filing fraudulent tax returns and Marco Rubio wants to triple this program. I don't think there's anything conservative about this," he said during a campaign stop in Iowa.
He also said Rubio had "blocked all conservative ideas" on immigration reform.
"There was basically a secret deal with deal between Marco and Chuck Schumer to exclude all conservative amendments on the immigration bill," he said.
The Gang of 8 senators working on the reform measure did indeed agree to vote against any amendments that would torpedo the bill, but that strategy wasn't secret.