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Why Ted Cruz is moving right on immigration

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Jae C. Hong/AP

(Read caption) Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, speaks at a rally in Las Vegas, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016.

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Ted Cruz wants GOP voters to believe he’s the toughest presidential candidate on illegal immigration.

During an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on Monday the Texas senator tried to leap to the right over rivals Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and Donald Trump on an issue that’s fast becoming a litmus test for what it means to be conservative in America.

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Asked whether he’d “round up” some of the 12 million immigrants living illegally on US soil, Senator Cruz (R) of Texas danced around a bit, but said, “Yes, we should deport them ... federal law requires that anyone here illegally that’s apprehended should be deported.”

That’s arguably tougher than Cruz’s previous words on the subject.

In the past he hasn’t sounded as if he’d be eager as president to actually hunt down the undocumented. In January he told CNN, “I don’t intend to send jackboots to knock on your door.”

There’s still wiggle room in his words – Cruz is a lawyer, after all. Technically it might not qualify as a flip flop on deportations.

But after that comment he veered off and tried to portray both Mr. Trump and Senator Rubio as soft on a particular immigration aspect – the path to citizenship that was part of the immigration bill Rubio backed in the Senate. Or, as many Republicans call possible citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, “amnesty.”

“Both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio would allow those 12 million people to become US citizens,” Cruz said to O’Reilly. “Donald says once he deports them he’d let them back in as citizens. I will not.”

There’s some truth in this, but only some. Trump has said that once he rids the US of all unauthorized immigrants, via a special “deportation force” or other method, he’d let “the good ones” back in. How many would qualify, or what would even constitute a “good one,” remains unsaid.

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Rubio has done all he can to simply avoid this issue, talking instead about the need to secure the border before any other immigration changes can move forward.

What’s the bottom line with Cruz’s strong words on the immigration subject? As noted above, it means that immigration has become something of a litmus test for the GOP race. That’s perhaps thanks to Trump, who discovered that a sizable segment of the Republican electorate was outraged about its perception that unauthorized immigrants are taking jobs and changing the nature of the country.

This is a discussion the Republican elite wanted to avoid following the party’s 2012 loss to President Obama. The fact that it has become so defining shows that they’ve lost control, not just of the internal GOP discussion on the issue per se, but also of what defines “conservative.” No wonder those attacks on Trump as a fake conservative are having little effect.

Cruz’s leap rightward also may reflect some frustration that he’s losing his grip on his key constituencies: Evangelicals and self-defined very conservative voters.

He’s losing the former to Trump, and close to losing the latter. Unless he deepens his base he might get swept out of the race with a poor showing on Super Tuesday on March 1.