GOP presidential rivals Ted CruzTed CruzCaitlyn Jenner to attend Trump inauguration: report Trump’s UN pick threads needle on Russia, NATO Haley slams United Nations, echoing Trump MORE and Marco RubioMarco RubioMcCain ‘very concerned’ about Tillerson Top Dem: Don’t bring Tillerson floor vote if he doesn’t pass committee Booker to vote against Tillerson MORE are trading shots over abortion ahead of a critical Saturday night debate in South Carolina.
Rubio has fought back with a series of tweets and statements, arguing Cruz’s insinuation that he is weak in opposing abortion is ridiculous.
“Marco Rubio has been and always will be a staunch defender for life,” former senator Rick Santorum, a Rubio backer who ended his own presidential bid last week, said in a statement pushed by the Rubio campaign. “For Ted Cruz to suggest otherwise is a disservice to the pro-life cause."
“We need a leader like Marco who can unite conservatives in the fight for life, not people like Ted Cruz who choose to weaken the pro-life movement for political gain,” he said.
The Cruz campaign maintained that Rubio did not stand against abortion when it mattered most.
"Marco Rubio should have stood with conservatives to use Congress's power of the purse to defund Planned Parenthood in the spending bill last September," Cruz spokesman Brian Phillips said in a statement to The Hill.
"Instead, Rubio didn't even show up for the vote," he added. "The one vote he did show up for was a 'show vote' that everyone knew wouldn't pass."
Cruz campaign communications director Rick Tyler also on Saturday said in a tweet that Rubio is "not with us."
The fight is important in South Carolina, where abortion is a big issue for anyone hoping to do well in the state’s Feb. 20 primary.
Cruz is polling in second place in the state behind Donald TrumpDonald TrumpObama quiet on final full day in office Warren burns Mnuchin over failure to disclose assets What we learned from Rick Perry's confirmation hearing MORE, while Rubio is battling with Jeb Bush and John Kasich for third place.
The Texas senator's attack is rooted in a 2014 vote Rubio made for a bill that kept the government funded. Cruz voted against the legislation.
Rubio earlier in the campaign said he would oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest, and his campaign did not take Cruz's attack lying down.
Rubio operative Joe Pounder hit back, pointing out that Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren burns Mnuchin over failure to disclose assets Senate Dems want Trump to withdraw from Pacific trade deal Warren: GOP ‘ignored’ ethical requirements for Cabinet picks MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe DC bubble is strangling the DNC Who really won the Cold War? Today's politics create doubt. Sanders backers take over California Democratic Party MORE (I-Vt.) also voted against the continuing resolution.
And Rubio campaign spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the attack is evidence that Cruz will "say or do anything to win an election."
"Marco Rubio has always voted with [Sens.] Tim ScottTim ScottHaley slams United Nations, echoing Trump DeVos vows to be advocate for 'great' public schools Trump education pick to face Warren, Sanders MORE and Joni Ernst to defund Planned Parenthood and anythng to the contrary is false," Wilcox said in a statement to The Hill.
Later, a string of political allies offered messages of support for Rubio, and criticism for Cruz.
Former Louisiana govenror Bobby Jindal, who also recently suspended his presidential campaign, said Cruz "lied about Marco Rubio."
"Instead of working to unite conservatives and defund Planned Parenthood, Cruz is using the issue as a political weapon," Jindal said in a statement released by the Rubio campaign.
"I expect Democrats like Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAppeals court upholds ex-coal boss’s conviction Trump is leader millennials have been waiting for. Even if they don't know it. Sanders backers take over California Democratic Party MORE to falsely attack conservatives over the sanctity of life, but I expected more from Ted Cruz," he added.
Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyCongress asserts itself GOP rep says media is 'blurring' fact and opinion Oversight panel demands answers on Pentagon waste report MORE (R-S.C.), an influential House Republican who is backing Rubio's presidential bid also said he was "bitterly disappointed" in Cruz's attack.
"Marco is passionately committed to the pro-life cause and has repeatedly voted to defend Planned Parenthood," Gowdy said in a statement released by the campaign. "Marco's unwavering defense of life is one of the reasons I so enthusiastically support him."
"I am bitterly disappointed Ted Cruz would try to intentionally mislead my fellow South Carolinians," he added.
The National Right to Life (NRLC), an anti-abortion-rights group, also said Cruz and Rubio have identical voting patterns on issues pertinent to ending abortion and condemned Cruz for insinuating otherwise.
“Marco Rubio voted to defund Planned Parenthood before Ted Cruz ever got to the U.S. Senate,” NRLC President Carol Tobias said in a statement to The Hill, pointing to an April 2011 vote.
“Since Ted Cruz joined the U.S. Senate, both he and Sen. Rubio have voted the same on every roll call that National Right to Life regards as pertinent to defunding Planned Parenthood,” she added.
Prominent conservative evangelical blogger Erick Erickson also tweeted in support of Rubio.
Marco Rubio is pro-life. If you think otherwise, you are wrong.— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) February 13, 2016