Dressed nearly identically, the two first-term Cuban-American senators had been circling each other for the first half-hour of the debate. At 33 minutes in, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida pounced, seeking to portray Senator Ted Cruz of Texas as someone who would leave the country defenseless.
“You can’t carpet-bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes and bombs to attack them with,” he said, bringing up Mr. Cruz’s votes on bills in the Senate that would have significantly cut military spending.
Mr. Cruz listened intently, waiting his turn, then jabbed his finger back at Mr. Rubio.
“Well, you know, Marco has continued these attacks, and he knows they are not true,” he said.
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The two men continued for several minutes, jabbing each other over questions of national security and the role of the American military, reflecting a deeper debate in the Republican Party after a decade of war in the Middle East.
But their tense confrontation on Tuesday night was about more than just a clash of worldviews. It was calculated political strategy masked by the language of defense appropriations and classified intelligence programs. Both senators have come to the same realization about the race for the Republican presidential nomination: The surest way to win is with the other gone.
So much about Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio is similar. Not only are they both the sons of Cuban immigrants. They are just five months apart in age. And in the next month and a half, they will battle over many of the same conservative voters who will decide the outcome in Iowa, the first state to hold a caucus.
Mr. Rubio puts forward the argument for those in his party who favor a more interventionist approach abroad and a more extensive intelligence dragnet at home, policies he says are all the more urgent in light of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
Interactive Feature | Fact Check: The Fifth Republican Debate The New York Times will be checking assertions made throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr. Cruz articulates the case for the Republican Party’s more war-weary voters, those who are deeply distrustful of mismanaged American military interventions and invasive surveillance programs that they fear will sweep them up.
Both, to make their case, tried to tie the other to the Obama administration.
“One of the problems with Marco’s foreign policy is that he has far too often supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama undermining governments in the Middle East that have helped radical Islamic terrorists,” said Mr. Cruz.
Said Mr. Rubio: “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s strategy is to lead from behind.” Then he added about Mr. Cruz: “It sounds like what he’s outlining is to not lead at all.”
Interactive Feature | Where the Candidates Stand on 2016’s Biggest Issues See what the candidates are saying about gun control, immigration and more, and how their positions align with the American people.
For all they share in common, the two men have never been especially close. As a senator, Mr. Cruz has often pursued a go-it-alone strategy that other senators have found self-promotional and off-putting, and Mr. Rubio has been more embracing of the institution and won over its leaders. Their growing irritation with each other is becoming more conspicuous.
Mr. Cruz sometimes employs the most bellicose language of anyone other than Donald J. Trump even though he has gone against the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies in several key votes as a senator. As he defends himself against Mr. Rubio’s attacks, he sometimes turns up the intensity. He has talked of carpet-bombing the Islamic State until the sand glows in the dark.
“Let’s be absolutely clear,” Mr. Cruz said at one point, pausing for dramatic effect as he turned toward Mr. Rubio. “ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism will face no more determined foe than I will be.”
Their mutual annoyance resurfaced toward the end of the debate, as they clashed on an issue that is especially delicate for Mr. Rubio in the Republican primary: immigration.
Mr. Cruz sought to link his opponent once again to President Obama, and the Democratic senators Mr. Rubio joined with in pushing for an overhaul of immigration that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“There was a battle over amnesty, and some chose, like Senator Rubio, to stand with Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer and support a massive amnesty plan,” the Texas senator declared. Mr. Rubio tried to parry, suggesting that Mr. Cruz’s position was not too different from his own.
“Did Ted Cruz fight to support legalizing people that are in this country illegally?” Mr. Rubio asked. “Does Ted Cruz rule out ever legalizing people that are in this country now?”
Mr. Cruz insisted their views were worlds apart.
“For Marco to suggest our records are the same,” he said, is like suggesting that an arsonist and a firefighter are the same “because they are both at the scene of the fire.”
The two men departed the stage a few minutes later, cordially, but no one expects too much time will pass before they clash again.
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