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Rubio Insists He's A More Sensible Choice To Cruz In GOP Presidential Race

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A freshman senator from an immigrant background who's known for his disdain for Washington is gaining ground in the Republican presidential race. We are talking about Ted Cruz of Texas, who's picking up some big endorsements and surging in Iowa polls. Now another candidate with a similar resume is struggling to gain traction. That's Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He's been sparring with Cruz over immigration and national security this week. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, Rubio's trying to convince early primary voters that he is a more sensible alternative to Cruz and his fiery rhetoric.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Marco Rubio took his campaign to Muscatine, Iowa, yesterday, a city along the Mississippi River. He hosted a town hall at a grain processing company that makes products like cat food. Even here, he said, ISIS wants to gain control.

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MARCO RUBIO: They want the black flag of ISIS to fly over the White House. They want it to fly here in Iowa, all over the world.

MCCAMMON: Rubio lobbed most of his direct attacks at President Obama, but he saved a few for his rivals for the GOP nomination.

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RUBIO: And in the face of those challenges, we have a president, and to be fair, some in my own party that support weakening us both militarily and in our intelligence gathering capabilities.

MCCAMMON: Those attacks were aimed at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who pleased many libertarian-leaning voters by supporting cuts to defense spending. In Iowa and in New Hampshire the day before, Rubio called out Cruz for saying he would carpet bomb ISIS.

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RUBIO: It is not enough to just say how tough you're going to be. What are you going to be tough with?

MCCAMMON: Rubio is casting himself as a pragmatic candidate with specific policy proposals to tackle issues like national security. Speaking to reporters in Iowa, Rubio addressed another point of tension between himself and Cruz, their respective records on immigration.

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RUBIO: Ultimately, we need to be serious about this issue. It's an important issue for America. It has been one that we've been confronting for 30 years. No one's done anything about it, and it's only gotten worse.

MCCAMMON: Rubio helped craft legislation in Congress to overhaul the immigration system, including a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. He later walked away from that bill, which was unpopular with conservatives. Rubio has been casting Cruz as a fellow supporter of the bill, pointing out that he proposed an amendment to offer legal status to undocumented immigrants. Cruz is hitting back, saying his proposal was intended to kill the bill. It would've barred those in the country illegally from ever becoming U.S. citizens and, Cruz said in Las Vegas yesterday, likely Democratic voters.

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TED CRUZ: There's a reason why I think the new politically correct term is no longer illegal aliens. It's now undocumented Democrats.

MCCAMMON: Cruz's tough talk has won him enough support to offer a strong challenge to Donald Trump, but it's seen as a liability by many establishment Republicans. New Hampshire state representative Ernie Bridge has mixed feelings about Cruz.

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ERNIE BRIDGE: In the couple of cases when I've had a chance to come face to face with him, you know, issues, absolutely right, every single one of them.

MCCAMMON: But in terms of personality...

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BRIDGE: An angry guy, a little scary.

MCCAMMON: Bridge came to see Rubio in Manchester, N.H., this week.

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BRIDGE: Marco Rubio appears to me to be a guy who can be seriously moderate, moderate but takes things seriously.

MCCAMMON: Rubio is competing with several others like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to win over the establishment wing of the Republican Party. That's in a year when the Republican establishment is losing its grip on the race, even in New Hampshire, where voters tend to prefer more moderate candidates. In Iowa, conservative evangelicals usually come out on top. GOP strategist Matt Strawn says Cruz has all but locked up that vote. But, Strawn says that may not be enough this year.

MATT STRAWN: Of course, in 2016, we're in this uncharted territory with a Donald Trump-sized shadow cast over those traditional lanes.

MCCAMMON: In any other year, the battle between Rubio and Cruz might be shaping up as a two-man race for the GOP nomination, except for the one man who's still dominating. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.