In a lengthy policy speech at a conservative think tank, the Texas senator tried to rebut Rubio's forceful argument that Cruz's votes to end aspects of the National Security Agency's data collection program should raise red flags for voters concerned about national security. Cruz has tried to stake out a compromise position between the muscular interventionism of Rubio, a Florida senator, and the surveillance-skeptical libertarianism of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, both GOP presidential competitors.
"There are some on both the right and the left who want to exploit the current crisis by calling on Americans to surrender our constitutional liberties as the only way to ensure our safety," Cruz said in a rare behind-the-lectern speech at the Heritage Foundation.
Cruz never mentioned Rubio, but his shadow loomed over Cruz's effort Thursday to beat back the Florida senator's multi-pronged attack as both men surge in the polls. Rubio has specifically targeted Cruz for his vote earlier this year on the USA Freedom Act, which curtailed part of the Patriot Act's data collection powers. Cruz has said that Rubio's attacks are politically motivated, while offering his own salvo that Rubio is too bellicose.
"More data from millions of law-abiding Americans is not always better data," Cruz said, rattling off past terrorism attacks. "Hoarding tens of millions of records of ordinary citizens, it didn't stop Fort Hood. It didn't stop Boston. It didn't stop Chattanooga. It didn't stop Garland. And it failed to detect the San Bernardino plot."
A growing chorus of Republican candidates has begun to criticize Cruz for his votes, including outside groups allied with both Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Cruz, who escaped major attacks for the first seven months of his campaign, is now battling daily barbs from much of the Republican world since he is second in many polls.
Rubio has been the most vocal, and his campaign now sends nearly daily emails to reporters highlighting what they see as inconsistencies in Cruz's record on terrorism, including on Thursday morning.
"In one speech, Ted Cruz will try to clarify weeks of conflicting statements trying to cover-up his weak record on national security and a foreign policy vision built upon whatever he needs to say to win the next election," a Rubio aide, Joe Pounder, wrote reporters ahead of Cruz's appearance Thursday.
Cruz does not currently support sending American troops to combat Islamic extremism, to which Rubio has been considerably more open.
The Texas senator has labeled Rubio a neoconservative who is too eager to risk regional stability for ill-fated attempts at democracy. Listing off a series of foreign dictators who the U.S. helped topple -- some of the ousters supported by Rubio -- Cruz on Thursday tried to draw a contrast with that interventionist brand of Republicanism. Cruz sees those as having a failed track record.
Yet he did call out the White House Thursday for not supporting the popular uprising known as the Green Revolution in Iran early in Obama's tenure.
"Some, in the course of a political campaign, have focused on boots on the ground," Cruz said, acknowledging that his position "flies in the face of conventional wisdom." "There will always be those who believe it is America's obligation as a free nation to convince others that we are laboring for their freedom, whether they want it or not."
That explains why Cruz says he opposes American involvement in the Syrian civil war, another possible realm for contrast with Rubio.
"We do not betray the idea of America by accepting reality," Cruz said. "History is a better guide than good intentions."