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Ted Cruz says fighting gay marriage not 'a top-three priority'

In a secret tape provided to Politico, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz can be heard saying that fighting same-sex marriage is not a top priority.

In a secret tape provided to Politico, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz -- who has railed against “judicial tyranny” and promised to end “the persecution of religious liberty” in the wake of a Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality -- can be heard telling a group of wealthy donors at a closed-door fundraiser in New York City that fighting same-sex marriage is not at the top of his proposed presidential agenda.

“No,” Cruz said in response to a question about whether fighting same-sex marriage was “a top-three priority.”

“I would say defending the Constitution is a top priority. And that cuts across the whole spectrum — whether it's defending [the] First Amendment, defending religious liberty, stopping courts from making public policy issues that are left to the people,” Cruz said. “I also think the 10th Amendment of the Constitution cuts across a whole lot of issues and can bring people together. People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio. ... That's why we have 50 states — to allow a diversity of views. And so that is a core commitment.”

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The remarks, recorded at a Dec. 9 fundraiser and published by Politico Wednesday, do not contradict past statements from the Texas senator. Indeed, Cruz made a similar “marriage is a question for the states” argument during a September interview with "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert.

"If you want to win an issue, go to the ballot box and win at the ballot box," Cruz told Colbert. "That's the way the Constitution was designed."

But the secret recording does reflect a shift in tone from the hardline rhetoric Cruz regularly uses on the campaign trail to court evangelical voters in early primary states. It’s arguably the latter messaging -- one of uncompromising commitment to protecting Christian Americans from the will of “five unelected judges,” as he likes to describe the justices -- that has propelled Cruz to the front of the pack alongside real estate mogul Donald Trump in Iowa, and helped him score powerful endorsements from evangelical leaders and traditional marriage supporters.

The recording could also make Cruz vulnerable to attack from Republican opponents eager to undercut his message of authenticity. Not long after the Politico article was published, Rick Santorum’s communications director, Matt Beynon, sent out this email: “More Cruz double-speak. I wonder how Dr. James Dobson, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage and Bob Vander Plaats of the Iowa FAMiLY Leader feel about this…”

Dobson, Vander Plaats, and NOM recently endorsed Cruz for president, passing over several candidates -- like Santorum -- who’ve similarly vowed to stand up for marriage equality opponents. Santorum was the keynote speaker at NOM’s annual gala earlier this year, making the group’s endorsement of Cruz all the more stinging.

NOM president Brian Brown, however, appeared utterly unconcerned about Cruz’s commitment to defending traditional marriage. In an interview with MSNBC Wednesday, Brown pointed to the fact that Cruz signed the group’s Presidential Marriage Pledge, which states that the candidate will “support a federal constitutional amendment that protects marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” among other provisions.

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“This is one report from one speech at one place, and the idea is, ‘Hey, let’s take this and blow it up and make it make it look like Ted Cruz is weak on social issues,’” Brown said. “Give me a break.”

The Cruz campaign, for its part, is pushing back against accusations that the candidate contradicted himself. Cruz’s national spokesman Rick Tyler told MSNBC’s Casey Schaeffer Wednesday that Politico's reporting was "pathetic” and “sophomoric.” Cruz, meanwhile, maintains he said exactly the same thing at the fundraiser as he has for months in interviews and stump speeches on the campaign trail.

“It was striking, you know, Politico runs this, you know, banner headline, ‘Secret Tape.’ And it’s almost word for word what I’ve said on Jay Leno. It’s almost word for word what I said on Stephen Colbert. It ain't very secret,” Cruz told reporters at a campaign stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I know Colbert may not have a ton of viewers, but saying it on national TV is not a great plan for keeping something secret.”