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Story highlights

Cruz said Trump's immigration proposal was merely a "touchback" program

"He doesn't get to pretend it's not amnesty," Cruz said

(CNN) —  

Inside this barren, dimly-lit community center, a fast-talking Ted Cruz decided to play a bit of offense Saturday evening.

How could we secure the border, a man asked?

Don’t elect Donald Trump.

“There’s another candidate in this race who talks quite a bit about immigration – and everything else,” Cruz said, a line he added to his stump speech Saturday, recalling the Capitol Hill fight that tried to grant citizenship to those here illegally.

“I would just encourage you to ask a question: Where were they then?”

Cruz, in a dogfight with Trump for top billing in Iowa, launched an early-state offensive here meant to tear into Trump’s position of strength by exposing his record on his signature issue: immigration.

It was the problem at the border that catapulted Trump to frontrunner status last summer, and his hardline stance toward Muslim and Hispanic immigrants has allowed him to grab and hog the Republican Party’s right flank.

But across Iowa on Saturday, Cruz began a closing pitch to unravel Trump’s immigration cachet, portraying him as an embracer of “amnesty” masquerading as a restrictionist in order to win a Republican primary.

If you want to know which candidate will “burn” you on immigration, Cruz’s final message to Iowans goes, look backward.

Cruz has outlined several fronts for policy contrast with Trump in recent days – on bank bailouts, the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare, in particular. But in Iowa, it was immigration that birthed the most explicit, concentrated contrast Cruz has offered on the stump since he shredded the non-aggression pact that the pair had essentially signed during Trump’s rise.

It is a high-risk gambit, attacking Trump on an issue where polls show voters trust him more than they do any other candidate. And Trump himself in recent days has worked to expose Cruz’s own vulnerabilities on the issue, portraying Cruz as duplicitous on what to do with undocumented immigrants.

But flanked at two rallies by a provocative personality eager to rip into Trump, Glenn Beck, Cruz again and again Saturday dredged up Trump’s history during the Gang of Eight fight in 2013, a congressional battle that Cruz usually lays at the feet of Marco Rubio, another GOP rival.

Kicking off his close-out tour before the Iowa caucuses in nine days, the Texas senator argued that Trump’s proposal was merely a “touchback” program that immediately allows the undocumented back over the border after Trump would deport them.

“Even right now today, Mr. Trump supports amnesty,” Cruz said at an event hosted by his super PAC just north of Des Moines. “He doesn’t get to pretend it’s not amnesty when he’s making 12 million people here illegally into 12 million U.S. citizens.”

And one drive north later, in a pizza shop not far from here in Dike, Cruz continued to remind voters how close comprehensive immigration bill came to passing both houses of Congress, raising the stakes for Trump’s decision then to not protest it.

The implication? “Amnesty” was almost granted, and Trump didn’t seem to care.

“Mr. Trump, at the time, was sending tweets publicly supporting amnesty,” Cruz said, adding the New Yorker to his usual bash of Rubio. “That’s what was happening when the fight was being fought.”

Trump, of course, has his own argument about immigration. A day earlier, Friday, Trump released his first negative television advertisement, featuring a stammering Cruz struggling to articulate whether an amendment he had introduced in 2013 would have left open a path to legal status for the undocumented – the same charge that Rubio leveled at Cruz for much of the fall.

Cruz’s new offensive was all the more telling given his hesitation over the past week to indulge in the same Trump bashing with voters as he does with reporters. Cruz declined to pass judgment on Trump’s latest incendiary comment – in which he floated shooting innocents in New York – even as his surrogate du jour, Beck, expressed exasperation that Trump said anything of the sort (“He’s a better man than I am,” Beck told reporters of Cruz.)

On immigration, though, Cruz seemed to at first let loose, unveiling a set speech in the Hawkeye State that drew the most contrast he has yet with the Republican frontrunner.

But there were signs across Iowa on Saturday that Cruz’s immigration contrast had not totally shown voters the light. Audiences did not respond to the Trump broadsides like they do to Cruz’s usual dose of red meat, only awarding tepid applause when Cruz pointed out Trump’s immigration record.

And by the time Cruz finished his day in Waterloo – at another, identical super PAC event – Cruz chose to hold back the jab that he voluntarily threw at Trump’s “touchback” policy hours earlier at the first super PAC rally, only offering that if the candidates hadn’t fought during the Gang of Eight fight, “their actions have conveyed more than a thousand speeches could ever convey.”

Bill Petullo, an undecided veteran who heard Cruz dress down of Trump’s immigration record at Slice Ultra-Shed, the pizza shop in Dike, reacted poorly to the message – even though he’s no fan of Trump.

“Whenever a candidate talks about the other guy’s positions, it turns me off completely,” Petullo said. “When he tries to get in the other guy’s shoes to start telling me what he thinks the other guys is thinking – and it doesn’t lower Senator Cruz at all to me – it doesn’t hold as much water.”

But the target voter is Mark Claassen, 62, a drilling contractor here in the front row at the community center table who first goaded Cruz to attack Trump. Claassen said he did not know much about Trump’s record beyond the “mudslinging.”

“He pointed out some things maybe in Donald Trump’s history,” Claassen said, “that don’t sit as well.”