For the few people left feeling "Marco-mentum," Super Tuesday was a rough night.
About half of those people appeared to be holed up inside the studios of Fox News Channel, a network that has been noticeably friendly to the Florida senator in recent months. Their faces could be seen fading throughout the night as maverick mogul Donald Trump won most of the contests, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won two and Marco Rubio won only in Minnesota.
For weeks, Fox guests and anchors had been conspicuously focusing on Rubio, the favorite of the so-called "GOP establishment" and elites, even as he continued to place second or third. The atmosphere reached its apex on the night of the Nevada caucuses last week, when national correspondent John Roberts declared that "Rubio's been racking up endorsements" ever since his "big second-place win" in South Carolina.
But on Tuesday night, as Rubio fell far behind Trump in state after state, Fox sobered up. It just took a bit. “If [Rubio] scrapes through tonight and gets a few delegates, the next two weeks will be decisive,” said senior political analyst Brit Hume at the beginning of the night. Former Bush strategist Karl Rove promised that he would treat Georgia as a fortune teller, but when it was projected that Trump had taken a comfortable lead there, Rove changed the subject.
Fox was not universally Rubio-centric — contributor Laura Ingraham essentially told Cruz and Rubio to get out and praised Trump as a Reaganite force for renewal — nor was it the only network to hype the underperforming contender. CNN's Jake Tapper called Rubio's sole win in Minnesota a "big, big victory," and conservative radio giant Hugh Hewitt declared that "momentum tonight is flowing against [Donald Trump] even as he racks up most wins."
Still, the narrative was clearest at Fox. Correspondent Roberts dialed in from Rubio headquarters in Miami, reporting that spirits were high despite the early wins for Trump. “Things are looking very good for Marco Rubio in the state of Virginia,” he said, adding that Rubio’s aides told him there’s a “real chance” the senator would beat Trump in Florida on March 15. But as numbers rolled in, Rubio's shortcomings began to feel real.
The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer repeatedly referred to Rubio's "propulsion" and "momentum." Former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, too, was still bullish on Rubio: "He seems to be doing good in Virginia," he told Megyn Kelly, even though Rubio was trailing Trump by at least 8 points and later lost the state outright.
“I’m not gonna give up until the last dog dies,” Thiessen said, quoting Bill Clinton. He danced around Kelly's question about would happen if Rubio failed to secure a strong showing.
During commercial breaks, viewers were treated to Trump-bashing ads from Conservative Solutions, Marco Rubio’s super PAC.
Eventually came a word from the man himself. Fox cut to the senator's speech in Miami while Hillary Clinton gave her victory address. Rubio, surrounded by adoring supporters, refused to acknowledge he had fallen flat.
"We are seeing in state after state, [Trump's] numbers going down, our numbers going up," he said to a jubilant crowd, insisting that his recent attacks on Trump had narrowed the gap in Virginia.
From that point forward, the network appeared ready to face up to Rubio's dreary chances. “Let’s be honest, this is a tough night for Marco Rubio,” said Kelly's co-anchor Brett Baier.
Shortly before Trump delivered his own speech at his gaudy Florida headquarters, Fox contributor Stephen Hayes (who once wrote a book linking al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein) admitted Rubio was facing a rough night. Still, Hayes insisted the GOP needed a genuine conservative like Rubio to rescue the party from Trump. He read a list of embarrassing Trump tweets to prove he was a flip-flopper.
“[Rubio's] argument gets tougher if he doesn’t win any states” Hayes conceded later.
By the time Trump took the stage around 9:30 p.m., Rubio's collapse had sunk in. The mogul took several opportunities to batter Rubio, calling him the big loser of the night. "I know it was a tough night for Marco Rubio, it was a very tough night, he is a lightweight," Trump said.
"A big, big victory for Marco Rubio," says @jaketapper. Makes it sound like Rubio just locked up nomination, not won his first state.
— Ginger Gibson (@GingerGibson) March 2, 2016
Finally, Fox lined up an interview with Rubio himself, and confronted the senator on his weak showing.
“The analysis needs to be recalibrated here," Rubio said, dismissing the night's numbers. “I’m the only one who can stop Donald Trump, I’m the only one who can unify this party.”
He then plugged his website. Twice.
Kelly pointed out that Trump is up by 20 points by some measurements, which Rubio waved off. When Baier ran Rubio some disheartening numbers from several counties in northern Florida, Rubio resisted again: “I wouldn’t analyze it that way.”
“If you don’t win Florida, will you drop out?” Baier asked.
“Well, we’re gonna win Florida."
As analysis went into overtime past 11 p.m., Fox veteran Chris Wallace opened up about the network's own interview with the establishment's falling star.
"It was kind of painful hearing him try to spin gold out of straw," he said to a deflated Karl Rove.