Last night’s GOP debate laid bare with unusual clarity the deep and nasty divide within the party over immigration. That divide has a policy and political component: The first is over what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country — should they go, or should they stay, and if so, on what terms? The second is over a related dispute over whether Republicans have to make genuine efforts to appear more welcoming and inclusive and broaden the party’s demographic appeal to win the White House.

At the debate, Donald Trump doubled down on his calls to deport the 11 million, aligning himself with one side of this argument. But John Kasich and Jeb Bush forcefully and unequivocally denounced Trump’s stance as policy fantasy and political suicide, aligning themselves clearly with the other side.

As many news accounts have observed, Rubio last night did not get drawn into this debate. But on ABC News this morning, George Stephanopoulos tried to pin Rubio’s position down — and the Florida Senator responded by straddling that seething divide. Rubio declined to directly denounce Trump’s call for mass deportations:

STEPANOPOULOS: Trump’s mass deportation plan — Kasich called it “silly” and “not adult.” Is he right?
RUBIO: First of all, my position on this plan is well stated. We have to deal with immigration in three steps. We can’t do it all at once. We tried to do that in 2013. And the American people just don’t trust the federal government. So we have to begin by proving to people that illegal immigration numbers are down significantly. The second step would be to modernize our legal immigration system, so that it’s merit based. And after we do those two things, we have to responsibly — but realistically — deal with people that are here illegally.
As I said, if you’re a criminal, if you haven’t been here very long, you can’t stay. For everyone else, you have to pass a background check, learn English, pay a fine, start paying taxes, and you get a work permit. And that’s all you’ll have for at least 10 years. I think this is the way forward. That’s my position. It’s been well stated for a long time. And I think it’s really the only way forward on immigration at this point.

Note that Rubio does not come down squarely on Kasich’s and Bush’s side — he does not denounce Trump’s idea in either moral or practical terms. And yet, at the same time, he says his approach is the “only” way forward, which means he’s also implicitly declining to endorse the Trumpian idea that more serious and sustained efforts at removal are required.

Rubio’s way forward, broadly speaking, is a retreat from his previous support for comprehensive immigration reform — he’s now saying some unspecified ideal of border security must be attained before we can even begin to discuss legalization. That, plus his refusal to side firmly with Kasich and Bush on the mass deportation question, appears to be designed to avoid alienating conservative voters who are largely reluctant to make peace with the idea of integrating the 11 million. Yet, by not ruling out legalization at some point later, and by declining to align himself with Trump’s hard line,  he’s leaving the door open for a general election re-entry as the GOP’s Great Hispanic Hope, the candidate whose own experience and relative openness to legalization (he’d presumably pivot back to offering some kind of reform proposal) might help solve the party’s demographic problems and broaden its appeal.

Similarly, on NPR this morning, Rubio was asked directly what we should do about the 11 million. Rubio sidestepped the question, and instead launched into a discussion of why comprehensive reform is no longer possible and why his border-security-first approach is the only one that can work. (Rubio has previously said that Trump’s plan “makes no sense,” but it’s unclear what about it, precisely, he was referring to.)

This clever Rubio straddle is evident in other areas, too. Rubio had previously declined to say whether he would roll back Obama’s executive actions protecting the DREAMers from deportations. But after Trump attacked this as pro-“amnesty,” Rubio clarified that he would end those protections as president, yet he didn’t quite say when. Now we’re seeing Rubio try a similar straddle on the mass deportation question.

The question is whether Rubio can get away with this, given that many conservatives are already suspicious of Rubio’s alleged softness on immigration (Ted Cruz’s Super PAC is already attacking Rubio as pro-“amnesty,” too) and will be working harder to pin down his true immigration intentions as the primaries get hotter. Rubio should also be asked directly whether as president he would immediately end Obama’s executive action protecting the DREAMers from deportation.

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* JOHN KASICH, JEB BUSH TRY TO DEFLATE GOP BUBBLE: After Donald Trump doubled down on his plan to deport 11 million, John Kasich offered this:

“For the 11 million people, come on, folks, we all know we can’t pick them up and ship them across the border. It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument.”

And Jeb said mass deportations would “tear communities apart.” Gauntlet, thrown. We’ll soon see which side of the argument GOP primary voters prefer.

* HILLARY CAMP DOES HIGH FIVES DURING DEBATE: As the GOP candidates argued over Trump’s insistence that the 11 million must be deported, Jeb Bush opined that Clinton aides must be doing “high fives.” Whereupon Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon tweeted:

We actually are doing high-fives right now.

And for good reason. As Jeb rightly noted, Republicans even having this discussion at all sends an awful message to Latino voters.

* GOP DEBATE EXPOSES FAULT LINE IN PARTY: The Post overview of the debate offers this barbed take:

The leading Republican presidential candidates clashed sharply over immigration policy, military spending, and other intractable and emotional issues in a debate here Tuesday night, bringing into sharp relief the party’s fault line between rigid conservatism and mainstream practicality.

Well, that’s one way to put it. Rigid conservatism and practicality do often seem to be mutually exclusive.

* TRUMP’S EPIC WAGES GAFFE: Early on in the debate, when asked whether he was sympathetic to demands for a $15 minimum wage, Donald Trump offered this pearl of wisdom:

“Our taxes are too high. I’ve come up with a tax plan that many, many people like very much. It’s going to be a tremendous plan. I think it’ll make our country and our economy very dynamic. But, taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is.”

Wages are too high! That will leave a mark.

Asked to describe Rubio in a word or phrase, the people in the focus group said things like “eloquent,” “passionate,” “young,” “very articulate,” “slick,” “inspirational,” and “fresh.”

The guy is very good. One question to keep an eye on is whether “slick” becomes a liability.

* RUBIO GETS EASY TREATMENT AT DEBATE: The New York Times offers this funny observation on how the debate moderators treated Rubio:

Mr. Rubio was not only able to avoid being drawn into the contentious immigration debate, but also repeatedly received questions that allowed him to answer with versions of his stump speech. Even he seemed unable to believe his good fortune when he was asked to make his case against Mrs. Clinton. He chuckled for a moment before unspooling a well-rehearsed argument: why he can prosecute a “generational” case against her.

Of course, Cruz and Rubio are both 44, so the former could presumably make the same argument. Rubio’s “generational” argument, obviously, is aimed at Jeb Bush and John Kasich.

* AND BEN CARSON’S BIOGRAPHY GETS A PASS: The Associated Press observes:

Coming into the debate, Carson was expected to face tough questions about certain discrepancies in his life story, which has served as a point of inspiration long before he became a presidential candidate. Yet moderators touched only lightly on that topic.

One wonders if that has anything to do with the outpouring of criticism heaped on the CNBC debate moderators or Carson’s endless complaining about how the liberal media is out to get him.