Both Rubio and Cruz had, in their days, been celebrated by the right. Both had starred on National Review covers that encouraged conservatives to back their Senate bids. But Cruz's cover line was "First Class Cruz," while Rubio's cover line was "Yes, He Can." Rubio, not Cruz, had appeared on the cover of Time magazine as "the Republican savior."
On the "alternative" right, there is seen to be a pro-Rubio slant, based on his support for an aggressive foreign policy and his fitful immigration reform campaign. "Marco is the fallback position of a reeling establishment that is appalled by Trump, loathes Cruz, and believes Rubio — charismatic, young, personable — can beat Hillary Clinton," wrote Pat Buchanan, the 1996 winner of the New Hampshire primary, before the debate.
On Saturday night, scores of conservatives who could not (or did not want to) score debate tickets filed into a ballroom of the downtown Radisson, where National Review readers had gathered to hear a few panels and watch the debate. After the doors opened, the magazine's lead political writer, Jim Geraghty, acknowledged that Cruz fans were frustrated by a perceived pro-Rubio narrative, in which Cruz's Iowa win was a sidebar to Rubio's third place surge.
"He's got a legitimate gripe there," said Geraghty.
"Cruz won, and then he had a terrible week," suggested staff writer Charles Cooke.
"Maybe it was the fact that his victory speech is still going on," joked Geraghty.
Then came the debate, and Rubio's rehashed answers. Here, finally, was something that could not be spun as a victory for Rubio.
"I would say that he has received very favorable coverage," said Jeb Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz of Rubio, laughing. "We have... not received very favorable coverage."
In conservative outlets where Rubio-skepticism has been rife, there was a surfeit of stories about the debate. Breitbart News filled its home page with stories that portrayed the debate as a disaster, matched only by Rubio's unconvincing spin. In the American Conservative, Rod Dreher compiled the worst Rubio moments under the headline "Robo-Rubio’s Gears Seize Up," illustrated by a photo of C-3P0.
The alternative right had seen a persistent pro-Rubio bias, not just favorable but protective. There'd been criticism of what seemed to be easy questions, prompts for his talking points, at early debates. At Breitbart, even Saturday's debate was seen as a little too easy, as Rubio had not been asked about the Trans Pacific Partnership. But even in National Review, where both Cruz and Rubio had been seen as honest and electable saviors from the menace of Donald Trump, the story was that Rubio had stumbled.
"What Rubio needed to do more than anything in that moment was show that he could stand up to Christie," wrote National Review's editor in chief Rich Lowry. "There is obviously a risk to Rubio that the exchange will now change the narrative of his candidacy, and if he underperforms in New Hampshire and can’t finish significantly higher than Kasich, Christie, and Bush, it will be an inflection point for his campaign."
The National Review party in Manchester, which was being partially recorded for podcasts, felt the same negative burn.
"It was pretty critical," said Cooke. "Far more so than I think was necessary, actually. He screwed up and you could feel it in the room — NR especially has slammed him — but I don't get the impression that the people who came as guests cared as much as our writers."