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GOP hopefuls face toughest grilling on immigration yet

The GOP debate devolved into a series of name-calling and one-upmanship as candidates were forced to face the skeletons in their closet on immigration reform.

GOP presidential hopefuls faced a brutal grilling Thursday night as each candidate was pressed to come clean on the number of times he has flip-flopped on immigration.

In the fireworks section of the final Republican debate ahead of the Iowa caucus, the forum devolved into a series of name-calling and one-upmanship as candidates were forced to address video montages of comments on immigration that they made in the past.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio stood at the heart of the roast, under fire for his roots as a chief architect in the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, which in part provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

In an attempt to corner Rubio for charting a full 360 degrees on his position, Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly pulled from the video archives to show interviews from 2009 and 2010, when Rubio called an earned pathway to citizenship “amnesty.” As Kelly pointed out, two years later, Rubio sponsored the “Gang of Eight” bill. Now, he rejects it all.

In his response Thursday night, Rubio struggled to regain his footing.

“At the time and context of that was in 2009 and 2010, where the last effort for legalization was an effort done in the Senate, an effort led by several people that provided almost an instant path, with very little obstacles moving forward,” he said. “What I've always said is this issue does need to be solved.”

Rubio wasn’t the only one who had to face the skeletons in his closet. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also had a hand in the Senate bill through an amendment that would have provided a pathway to legalization, but not citizenship.

Cruz claims now that the measure was never supposed to pass and that it was a poison pill designed to bring the whole legislation down. But the montage of clips from the past featuring Cruz lobbying for his amendment suggested otherwise.

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“You know, the amendment you're talking about is one sentence, it's 38 words. In those 38 words, it said anyone here illegally is permanently ineligible for leadership,” Cruz said. When pressed further by Kelly, Cruz pivoted to boast of having Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a notoriously anti-amnesty Republican, to back him up on his intentions behind the amendment.

Cruz is currently polling in second place in Iowa. And in one of the hardest challenges to Cruz during the campaign, his colleagues in the Senate who were also onstage for Thursday night’s debate went after not only his record, but also his authenticity.

“I saw Ted Cruz say we'll take citizenship off the table and then the bill will pass and I'm for the bill. The bill would involve legalization,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said. “He can't have it both ways.”

“The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you've been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes,” Rubio said.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush tried to pin his former mentee in Florida politics for also having an honesty problem by abandoning the legislation that he once helped create.

"He cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess," Bush said before going on to promote his own principles on immigration that were outlined in his book.

“It's interesting Jeb mentions the book, that's the book where you changed your position on immigration because you used to support a path to citizenship,” Rubio fired back.

“So did you, Marco,” Bush said in return.

Ironically, the candidate who claims credit for turning immigration into such a hotly contested topic, Donald Trump, boycotted the event and wasn’t onstage. Still, he was there in spirit.

“You want to trump Trump on immigration,” Rubio fired at Cruz.