Ted Cruz's run to the right

Trump gets serious, Rubio and Cruz go to battle
Trump gets serious, Rubio and Cruz go to battle

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Trump gets serious, Rubio and Cruz go to battle 02:31

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  • The Texas Republican is looking to shore up his conservative bonafides
  • On trade and immigration -- two of the most volatile issues in the Republican Party -- Cruz has abandoned previous positions that are politically dangerous in the race to the right

(CNN)Ted Cruz, eager to extinguish any lingering liabilities with the conservative base that largely adores him, is quietly inching rightward as he surges into the Republican top tier.

Few in the conservative grass-roots question his standing as a true believer. But with one eye on a threatening ideological competitor, Donald Trump, and another on an useful foil, Marco Rubio, Cruz has over the past four months slowly looked to remove any outstanding impurities that could hinder his hopes to coalesce conservatives around his campaign.
On trade and immigration -- two of the most volatile issues in the Republican Party -- Cruz has abandoned previous positions that are politically dangerous in the race to the right. The latest shift came Tuesday, when Cruz discarded with his past caution on what to do with those who came to the U.S. illegally, saying finally at CNN's debate in Las Vegas that he would not support a path to legal status. That move hasn't been without controversy, as seen in a contentious interview on Fox News Wednesday that put the Texan squarely on the defensive.
    A month prior, Cruz sharply distanced himself from his long-held plan to increase the number of visas for high-tech workers by 500%. Under fire from conservative talk radio hosts who said he was imperiling American workers, Cruz said he would suspend the program for 180 days until it could be reformed to his liking. Three months before that, under that same pressure from GOP talkers, Cruz backed out of supporting the White House's Trade Promotion Authority, which had become a lightning rod for conservatives anxious about appeasing the White House. Cruz maintains that he still supports free trade, but that the trade authority was "enmeshed in corrupt Washington backroom dealmaking."
    And since the attacks in Paris, Cruz has been leaving the door more open to committing U.S boots on the ground in the Middle East, trading his against-the-grain unwillingness for more mainstream interventionism.
    Together, the shifts allow Cruz to simultaneously avoid ceding any ground to Trump while also more distinctly articulating the difference between the man Cruz supporters see as his eventual final rival, Rubio.
    More immediately, though, some unaffiliated Republicans argue that Cruz is responding to political pressure that comes as Cruz nears front-runner status in Iowa, a state that tends to reward the furthest right candidates in the field.
    "He's certainly tacking right to try to secure the hard-right base that he thinks will propel him to victory in the Iowa caucuses," said Doug Gross, a longtime Iowa GOP hand who worries about Cruz in a general election. "He may be short-term in his thinking here."
    The shifts haven't gone unnoticed by competitors, especially Rubio, whose campaign is eager to remind voters of each inconsistency they see in Cruz's new rhetoric. "Another week of Senator Ted Cruz willing to say or do anything to win an election, leaving a trail of inconsistencies and conflicting statements," read one recent missive from the campaign to reporters wrapping up the week's news.
    Rick Tyler, a Cruz campaign spokesman, pushed back on the idea that the policy changes were part of any broader narrative about his ideology.
    "How does Ted Cruz shift right? There's no right left," said Tyler. "Everybody can try to pick apart Ted Cruz's record, but they can't because his record is conservative and consistent."
    The base does not seem worried. Jenny Beth Martin, the head of Tea Party Patriots who has not endorsed a candidate, said Cruz is simply paying attention to his audience and reflecting the moment. "He listened to his base and reflected and represented them," said Martin. On trade, she said, "grassroots pressure came to bear on him about the agreement, and learning more about it, he shifted about his position."
    There are not many blemishes on Cruz's record or concerns about his conservative allegiances: He has a 100% rating on the scorecard from Heritage Action for America, considered by grassroots activists to be one of the best barometers of their commitment to the cause. And he has staged his political campaign as a revolution against the traditional powers in Republican politics, charging that the party's establishment donors "actively despise" the base that he represents and that its leaders compose a "surrender caucus."
    But that might not be enough in a GOP field dominated by Trump, who has displayed a populist appeal spanning from the tea party to mainstream suburban women. Despite his grounding in the grass-roots, Cruz has had to quickly react at times to Trump's envelope-pushing brand of conservatism, such as when Cruz quickly agreed this summer with Trump's new position to end birthright citizenship, despite previous questions the Texan posed about its constitutionality.
    And so some Cruz critics lay the blame for Cruz's moves at the New Yorker's feet.
    "He is trying to get to the right of Trump," said Massey Villarreal, who convened a group of like-minded Hispanic conservatives to meet with the Cruz campaign the day before the debate in Las Vegas. "He's going to be the darling of the people who have fear in their hearts."
    Cruz's most high-profile switch came Tuesday night, when he definitively ruled out a path to legal status for those currently in the United States. For months, Cruz has gone to extreme lengths to avoid answering what he would do with the estimated 12 million in the U.S. Illegally, derailing interviews and flustering questioners by repeatedly refusing to engage in the discussion.
    But under siege from a Rubio determined to close the distance between Cruz's position and his own, Cruz aimed to forge a new black-and-white contrast: Rubio would supports a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and Cruz would deport them.
    "My stance on immigration has been consistent," Cruz told reporters in California when asked about his hardened stance. Then he was able to parlayed it into a differentiation with his rival: "Last night was the first time he admitted it," Cruz said of Rubio's position. "That's an important moment of candor."
    Cruz nevertheless has spent much of the post-debate news cycle on the defensive. In a contentious interview with Fox News's Bret Baier on Wednesday, an occasionally stammering Cruz was forced to recount every nook and turn of his positions during the 2013 immigration wars in the Capitol -- and not Rubio's.
    For voters just paying attention to Cruz after his rapid rise, his past positions may remain merely fodder for rival campaigns. But given Cruz's self-stylization as an unabashed truth-teller, Gross said, his political profile could be at risk if one of those rivals tells voters about them.
    "If people realize he's being duplicitous about those positions, he'll kill himself," Gross said. "If it gets publicized, it's high, high risk."