Cruz, Rubio fight over abortion heats up
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GOP presidential rivals Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzUS-China trade war is just the start of the struggle for global order Dem lawmaker: Migrant family separation policy 'is on all of us' Cruz wins charity basketball challenge against Jimmy Kimmel MORE and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate rejects effort to boost Congress's national security oversight The Memo: Summit gives Trump political boost — with risks The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump, Kim make history with summit MORE are trading shots over abortion ahead of a critical Saturday night debate in South Carolina.

The fight began with a shot by Sen. Cruz (R-Texas), who told an evangelical audience in the state Friday that Rubio voted in favor of a spending bill that included money for Planned Parenthood.

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 John TrumpEx-ethics chief calls on Trump to end 'monstrous' migrant policies Laura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' US denies report of coalition airstrike on Syria 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 Ann WarrenTrump to nominate budget official as next consumer bureau chief Sessions floats federal law that would protect states that decriminalize marijuana Bank regulator faces backlash over comments on racism MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) Sanders If Congress takes no action, the Social Security trust fund will become depleted in 2034 Ex-campaign manager: Sanders is still eying another presidential bid DNC chair backing plan to cut superdelegates opposed by Dem lawmakers 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 ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottAnti-Trump Republicans better look out — voters might send you packing Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Fed nominees vow to rebuff pressure from Trump on interest rates 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 Diane Rodham ClintonThere are many unanswered questions about FBI culture FBI agent who sent anti-Trump texts offers to testify on Capitol Hill Giuliani wants 'full and complete' investigation into Russia probe's origins MORE to falsely attack conservatives over the sanctity of life, but I expected more from Ted Cruz," he added.

Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyGowdy: House will use 'full arsenal' of constitutional weapons to get DOJ, FBI compliance on subpoenas Gowdy: IG report ‘certainly helps’ Trump Sunday Shows preview: Lawmakers, Trump allies discuss Russia probe, migrant family separation 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.