GOP Debate: A Three-Way Fracas Emerges on Immigration

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz (L) and rival candidate Senator Marco Rubio discuss a point at the debate held by Fox News for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Immigration took center stage at Thursday night's Republican presidential primary debate in Iowa — and with the party's front-runner Donald Trump electing to skip the debate entirely, none of the seven men on stage had more to say on the topic than former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

The three-way fracas kicked off when Fox News' Megyn Kelly asked Rubio about his shifting stance on a path to citizenship. Kelly played clips of Rubio from 2009 and 2010 arguing those who came to the U.S. illegally should not be allowed to earn their citizenship, then asked Rubio about his support of the so-called "Gang of Eight" bill from 2013, which would have opened a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Rubio struggled to square his past statements with his support of the bill. "I do not support blanket amnesty," he said. "What I've always said is this issue does need to be solved."

But Bush, who years ago was considered a mentor to Rubio, jumped in to criticize the senator. The former governor was "kinda confused," he said, over Rubio's backing of the Gang of Eight legislation, only to "cut and run" when the measure became unpopular. Bush went on to hype a book of his, Immigration Wars , in which he advocates for "legal status," but not citizenship, for those who come to the United States illegally.

Rubio took the opportunity to bash Bush, calling his stance in Immigration Wars a flip-flop from his earlier stance.

"That is the book where you changed your position on a path to citizenship," Rubio said.

"So did you," Bush shot back.

Rubio also attacked Cruz, his fellow senator, over what Rubio called a willingness to change his policies to appease voters. "You want to trump Trump on immigration," Rubio quipped, suggesting Cruz would say whatever voters want to hear. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul also piled on, suggesting Cruz has "an authenticity problem" because "everybody he knows is not as perfect as him, because we're all for legalization."

"So was Ted," Paul added.

Cruz responded by resorting to his argument that his 2013 amendment that would have given illegal immigrants legal status — but not citizenship — was a "poison pill" designed to scuttle the bill to which it was attached.

Iowans will meet on Monday across the state for gatherings run by the GOP and Democratic party to choose their preferred presidential candidate.

GOP Debate: A Three-Way Fracas Emerges on Immigration | U.S.