Buzz is building about a Ted Cruz presidential run in 2016. (Getty Images)

Buzz is building about a Ted Cruz presidential run in 2016. (Getty Images)

Analysis: Ted Cruz takes on Marco Rubio and a pathway to citizenship

Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have found much common ground in 2013 as they seize high-profile, vocal positions in a Republican party in transition. They both joined Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s CIA nomination because of questions over the drone program and both steadfastly opposed gun control legislation of any form. But now that immigration reform legislation has been introduced, Cruz and Rubio find themselves on opposite sides of a crucial issue.

“There’s nothing holding him back,” says political scientist and NBC Latino contributor Victoria DeFrancesco Soto. “Cruz doesn’t need Latinos. He’s very much an animal of the very conservative Texas establishment. His brand has emerged as Senate contrarian, where he can differentiate himself from other Latino superstars. What does he have to lose? This puts him in the limelight.”

The new dynamic was on full display during Monday’s second Senate judiciary committee hearing, where Cruz offered some gracious words on the importance of immigration reform, while also drawing a crucial line in the sand on what he will not support.

RELATED: Senators Cruz and Rubio: The Alamo and Jay-Z take center stage on Senate floor

“I think all of us would like to see a bill that fixes the broken immigration system and I would suggest in my view, the strategy that will be effective is to focus where there is wide bipartisan agreement,” he said, identifying the bipartisan points as a focus on border security and streamlining legal immigration to reduce the red tape and reduce waiting periods.

But he made it clear that the bill’s focus on implementing stronger border security measures, which would then allow undocumented immigrants to begin a residency and eventual path to citizenship process, are not OK by him.

“If instead the bill includes elements that are deeply divisive — no issue is more divisive than a path to citizenship,” he said. “I hope that immigration reform should not be held hostage to an issue as deeply divisive as a pathway to citizenship.”

DeFrancesco Soto says Senate members like Cruz usually keep their head down, work to build relationships and temper their judgments, but that the Texas conservative instead has the distinction of acting like a House member while he’s in the Senate.

She says he will have an indirect effect on the fortunes of comprehensive immigration reform.

RELATED: CPAC: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio take center stage

“There is a strong block of support for reform,” she says. “But he can influence Republican leaders in the House to stall it.”

Northern Arizona University political science professor and NBC Latino contributor Stephen Nuño says Cruz can exist as a thorn in immigration reform’s side.

“Senator Ted Cruz seems long on his own version of principles, and short on the real version of American history,” he says. “His blend of assimilation-induced amnesia about his own roots and his steadfast grip on Tea Party mythology makes him a formidable Republican in today’s world.”

But Nuño warns that while he can exist as a high-profile immigration reform opponent, Cruz may make it difficult for a Republican party which hopes to be seen as more welcoming to Hispanics.

“Ironically, his desire to be accepted as the Tea Party’s favorite pet Latino could be the greatest barrier to assimilating future Latinos into the party.”

RELATED: Poll: Undocumented Latinos strongly support background checks, learning English to get citizenship

For his part, Rubio’s website takes on critics of his immigration bill. While Rubio often uses “undocumented immigrants,” his website, in taking on myths from opponents, uses “illegal immigrants” liberally.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant also mixed it up with critics of the immigration bill by equating undocumented immigrants to slaves.

With the very real possibility that existing critics of the immigration bill will be buoyed by a popular figure on the right in Cruz, only time will tell if Rubio regrets a tweet from February where he lauded the freshman Senator’s brash style.

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