HOUSTON -- There was an "expectations game" underway for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Dan Patrick was not playing it.

"We not only have to win Texas, we need to win it by a large margin," said Patrick, the lieutenant governor of this state since 2015, as the Harris County Republican Party wrapped up its pre-debate dinner in a cavernous suburban event center. "We need to pick up every delegate we can in Texas."

Patrick, an early Cruz endorser, owed him plenty. In 2012, Cruz climbed over then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to win the primary for his U.S. Senate seat, overcoming Dewhurst's cash advantage with sheer talent and a campaign that branded the front-runner as a phony conservative. Weakened and discredited by that campaign, Dewhurst faced a three-way 2014 primary of his own, then a runoff against then-state Senator  Patrick, which he lost.

Texas Republicans' steady march to the right was always supposed to help Cruz lock this state down, replacing its old establishment with a new, Tea Party-powered class. And the senator, who added the endorsement of Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) yesterday, is the one remaining Republican candidate who holds a clear polling lead in his state's upcoming primary. Yet he's been beset with questions about whether he could blow it here, and whether that would end his campaign.

"I’m curious how many reporters ask Marco Rubio, after losing four states in a row: So when do you drop out, when you haven’t won a state?" Cruz asked reporters at a Houston news conference after the Abbott endorsement. "To win, you’ve got to win states, you’ve got to win delegates. This is a battle for delegates. Why does Super Tuesday matter so much? Because it is the night when the single most delegates are awarded."

At the Harris GOP dinner, Cruz described Texas as the "crown jewel" of Super Tuesday, with 155 delegates on offer. The campaign's stated goal has been to emerge from Super Tuesday with a clear delegate lead, anchored in Texas.

Yet the awkward truth is that Texas's primary might be tailor-made for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a candidate who has lost four primaries in a row but managed, with some help from the media, to spin three of them as wins. Republican strategists in Texas assume that Cruz will beat Donald Trump here, but perhaps only by single digits. That was not where Cruz wanted to be. Winning more than 50 percent of the vote statewide would net him 47 delegates. Winning just 49 percent would hand some delegates to any candidate with more than 20 percent. That rule was the same in every congressional district. Rubio, in a soft echo of Barack Obama's 2008 strategy, only needs to crack 20 percent of the vote to cut the margin and blow an air horn over Cruz's win.

"We select our delegates, if you do not know this, by congressional districts," said Patrick to Republicans last night. "My take on the election is: Ted Cruz will win most of the congressional districts. We have to be over 50 percent to get all three. Donald Trump will do well, and he'll pick up some delegates. But at the end of the day, on Tuesday night next week, Ted Cruz will have the majority of the delegates. Donald Trump will have delegates. Marco Rubio will not have any."

In the Calvinball rules of the expectations game, that might let Rubio declare victory if he takes any delegates in Texas. The senator will have been a spectral presence in Texas, touching down Wednesday night for a rally and fundraiser in Houston, and leaving Friday after an event in Dallas and fundraiser in Midland. In Texas, as in the first four states, he's hoping on suburban voters to turn his way, and hoping to scoop up the people who lined up early behind Jeb Bush.

"Most people are falling behind Rubio, especially the electeds," said Steve Munisteri, a former chairman of the Texas GOP who had become a senior adviser to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and had not signed up with a new candidate. "But that's not going to matter here as much as in the SEC states."

Cruz, who is making three Texas campaign stops before Super Tuesday, is spending the rest of his time in the the states that make up the Southern "SEC primary." If all of them fell to Trump, even a delegate win in Texas would fall short of last year's expectations and planning. And the first clue to the Texas vote will come Friday, when the in-person early voting period ends. In the last three contests, the turnout for Trump -- a candidate who seemed to mock the data-heavy ground game of Cruz -- overwhelmed the votes of base conservatives. Cruz's allies suspect that half of the total vote will be cast by Friday, and in the past, 750,000 votes have been enough to win a Texas primary. That was before the rise of Trump.

"I think we look very good in Texas, but Donald Trump is such an unknown factor, who in the world knows," said Welcome Wilson Sr., an 89-year old Cruz donor. "Donald Trump brings out a whole new category of voter and I’m not even sure they’re Republicans but there’s no doubt that he turns them out."

The Trump voters wouldn't be the only ones who lack allegiance to Cruz. George W. Bush, the last Texan to get this far in a nomination contest, ran as the beloved political dynast who effectively ended Democratic relevance in Texas. Cruz is an insurgent who has never fully integrated with the state's high society, members of which are still casting around for another candidate. In January, David Dewhurst donated the maximum of $2,700 to Cruz, the candidate who effectively ended his career.

One month earlier, he'd given the same amount to Marco Rubio.

Katie Zezima contributed reporting from Washington.