ORLANDO, Florida — The Republican Party's 13 presidential candidates — and their feuds — converged on Friday at a cattle call in the Sunshine State, where Florida's native sons enjoyed home field advantage.
In the morning, Marco Rubio energized the crowd in well-received speech, while, later in the day, former Gov. Jeb Bush appeared bold and decidedly spirited — something he's struggled to do in the past debates, earning the derision of fellow candidate Donald Trump as "low energy."
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The candidate's confidence helped them approach the intra-party policy wars that have dogged the GOP field this week — including Rubio's spat with rival Sen. Ted Cruz over immigration — from a stronger position, even as Rubio continued to stir the pot.
“On the immigration front, I’m puzzled and quite frankly surprised by Ted’s attacks since Ted’s position on immigration's not much different than mine,” Rubio said after a speech kicking off the two-day Sunshine Summit. Speaking with reporters, he argued that Cruz’s positions on immigration were actually more liberal than his own at times.
Bush touched on the party's feuds in his speech, pitching himself as someone confident enough to leave the bluster at home.
"Leadership traits, by the way, that are grossly underestimated in the world we're in today where you've gotta be the big guy on the stage and trash talk and talk in a way that disparages people – listening and learning is the way that you lead," he said, hours after Trump delivered a tirade of attacks on Dr. Ben Carson, saying Iowans were "stupid" if they believed his story of redemption.
Rubio’s attacks expose a liability for his rival, whose far-right base often see any legalization of undocumented immigrants as “amnesty,” undermining Cruz's aura of honesty on the campaign trail. They also help to normalize Rubio’s own attempt to pass bipartisan immigration reform in 2013, a failed legislative effort that remains a problem for the Cuban-American senator in a race that’s polarized sharply around immigration.
“You should check the record. Sen. Cruz clearly supported an amendment and bragged how this amendment would bring people out of the shadows and how it would legalize people that were in this country illegally,” Rubio continued Friday. “If he’s changed his position, he has a right to change his position, he hasn’t been clear on that day.”
Rubio held one of the more assured press conferences the party’s seen in recent weeks, as Carson clashes with reporters over questions about his past and Donald Trump faces criticism for calling Carson “pathological” and likening him to a child molester. Rubio dismissed questions about Trump’s inflammatory comments with a small laugh, saying he hadn’t watched him.
As Rubio wrapped up the press conference, Cruz took the stage across the hall, revving up the already charged crowd by listing his top priorities if elected president.
Above all, he vowed transparency -- the very virtue Rubio's now targeting.
“The single biggest difference between me and the other very, very fine men and women standing on that debate stage, is that with me when I tell you I'm gonna do something, I'm gonna do exactly what I said I would do,” Cruz told the crowd, rattling off a string of crowd-pleasing promises, including investigating Planned Parenthood and repealing Obamacare.
The Texas Republican launched his own immigration policy hours later: Proposing new restrictions on legal immigration — a major reversal from his previous calls for a massive expansion for foreign workers — and an expanded crackdown on undocumented immigrants.