PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images (PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of America's surveillance network began in mid-2013, just months after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) took his seat in Congress. Some Republicans immediately demonized the former Booz Allen consultant-turned-leaker.

Cruz was not among them.

"If it is the case that the federal government is seizing millions of personal records about law-abiding citizens," Cruz said in June 2013, "and if it is the case that there are minimal restrictions on accessing or reviewing those records, then I think Mr. Snowden has done a considerable public service by bringing it to light."

Since that summer, Cruz was part of a small but winning coalition of reformers who eventually ended the bulk metadata collection program that Snowden exposed. Frequently, a Cruz stuff speech would begin with gallows humor about the threat of government spooks. "Please leave your cellphones on," Cruz would say. "I want President Obama to hear everything we're saying here tonight."

That line did not appear when Cruz kicked off his eight-state, pre-Christmas tour in Las Vegas. The senator and Iowa front-runner has not backed off from his National Security Agency stance. But like his cautious 2013 immigration position -- opposing "amnesty" while insisting he wanted reform to pass -- Cruz's NSA reform advocacy is seen by rivals as a way to undercut him. He was on the right side of the base, and times have changed.

In Tuesday night's Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went right at Cruz in language he's previously used to attack Republican defenders of Snowden. The San Bernardino attacks -- which Cruz was first among Republicans to link to terrorism -- should have raised awareness of how wrong NSA critics had been, he said.

"I promise you," said Rubio, "the next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, why didn't we know about it and why didn't we stop it? And the answer better not be because we didn't have access to records or information that would have allowed us to identify these killers before they attacked."

Rubio was echoed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who both argued that the NSA deserved all the support that it claimed to need. Cruz, meanwhile, refused to give an inch, and his campaign was confident that the attack blew past them. True, polling had flipped on the NSA issue in two years, and where a majority now worried about government over-reach, a majority now wanted the government to surveil as much as necessary. But the number of conservatives who voted on this issue first was small, and the people who felt most passionate about surveillance, specifically, were the libertarian-leaning votes Cruz needed to purloin from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

In Las Vegas, the 300-odd people who had come to see Cruz were divided. Some admitted that they had rallied against the NSA, but the threat of terrorism slowly changed their minds.

"There should be certain times that the government can intercede," said Margie Hoestadt, 68. "In the beginning, I was a bit disgusted at the way Snowden was looked down upon. Now I can understand that he was wrong in what he did. The government gives away too much knowledge. There are things the public should not be aware of."

Rubio's campaign took full advantage of that worry this week. In the debate, Rubio responded to Cruz's description of NSA powers after the USA Freedom Act's passage by suggesting that his rival had discussed "classified information." The next day, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) seemed to suggest that the committee would investigate whether Cruz had damaged national security -- comments he clarified only after the story ricocheted around the political world.

To anyone who followed the battle for NSA reform, Burr's and Rubio's worries had sounded surreal. This week marked the two-year anniversary of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies's post-Snowden report, which recommended that the government be taken out of the metadata collection business and suggested that the program had not actually stopped any terrorist attacks.

And the conservatives who abetted Cruz's political rise were not on board with the panic. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the prime Republican sponsor of the post-Snowden USA Freedom Act, told Boston Herald radio this week that Rubio had been "dead wrong" to criticize Cruz.

“The USA Freedom Act has not made us less safe at all," he said. "In fact, I had a discussion last week with FBI Director James Comey. I asked him point blank, ‘Did this, in any way, impair our ability to follow up on the San Bernardino attack?’ And of course, the answer was no.”

FreedomWorks, which launched a post-Snowden civil suit against the NSA on behalf of anyone who felt his or her data was compromised, has kept up the criticism even after the San Bernardino attacks.

"We still hold that it's necessary to rein in the NSA's collection of bulk data," said Josh Withrow, the legislative director at FreedomWorks. "When it comes to Rubio, I think what he says about the diminishing effect on NSA reform on our ability to catch terrorism is demonstrably false. The government has repeatedly said that bulk data collection was not helping them catch terrorists; that it got in the way by making the haystack larger."

But FreedomWorks's partner in the civil suit was not Cruz. It was Paul, who is running against Cruz for president, and who is not currently interested in letting Cruz own the reform mantle. In a conference call with reporters Friday, Paul said that the push to undo NSA reform was coming from "hysterical people who want to trade liberty for security." But he portrayed Cruz as an opportunist, as evidenced by his immigration stances.

"If you look at his rhetoric, it could have come from my speeches," said Paul. "You wonder whether or not we can take him at face value on anything."