U.S. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, left, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. (Reuters)

Whatever Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) does from here on out -- short of winning the presidential nomination -- will break many conservatives' hearts. In the run-up to Thursday night's GOP primary debate, a rumor combined with wishful thinking gave birth to a meme. Perhaps, just perhaps, Rubio was about to unite behind the rising campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Perhaps that was how the conservative movement could defeat Donald Trump.

"When the debate is nearly over, and the dynamic Cuban-American tag team has once again ravaged the bloviating narcissist for all to see, Marco Rubio can exit this campaign in truly dramatic *drops mic* fashion," wrote Josh Hammer on Thursday at Erick Erickson's newish website The Resurgent. "In his closing statement of tomorrow night’s debate, Marco Rubio should formally endorse Ted Cruz for president of the United States and explain why Cruz is the only Republican who can stop Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party."

Hammer was echoing what Erickson himself had been writing, and writing. "Together Cruz and Rubio can win and go to the White House as president of the United States and vice president of the United States," he insisted on March 6, before Trump won three of the four March 8 primaries.

Against all evidence, some influential movement conservatives are trying to will a #CruzRubio ticket -- hashtag included at no fee -- into existence. Twice, Rubio has had to deny it. In every other moment, he refuses to live it out.

"I think that's kind of 'House of Cards' stuff," the Florida senator said in a March 9 MSNBC interview, referring to the popular Netflix series set in an alternate reality where Trump is not the Republican front-runner for president. "It looks good on TV; it doesn't ever work that way."

After the debate, at a Friday morning news conference, Rubio was asked a version of the question by CNN's Dana Bash. "I have never talked to Ted Cruz about that," Rubio said. "I've never talked to anybody about that. People put stuff on Twitter all the time. This is stuff from like 'House of Cards.' It's not real life. I'm running for president."

Rubio, whose national political career began with conservative pundits rooting him on to win a primary for Florida's U.S. Senate seat, is now deluged by unsolicited pundit advice. Already he has followed some of that advice, and regretted it. Before the Feb. 25 presidential debate, plenty of conservative writers -- worried by reports that Rubio would go easy on Trump -- urged him to mock the front-runner and bring him down to earth.

"Bash him for hiring foreign workers," advised Ben Domenech, founder of The Federalist. "Bash him for loving Planned Parenthood. Bash him for his obsession with Megyn Kelly. Make note of his stubby fingers and small hands — we all know what that means."

In the days that followed, Rubio did just that. And as Jonathan Chait chronicled, the people who rooted Rubio on came to write, just as confidently, that he had gotten out over his skis and attacked Trump too bitterly.

"I do think Rubio's attacks damaged Trump without benefiting Rubio," Domenech surmised in an email. "Instead, the attacks seemed to accrue to Cruz's benefit. And I can see why that is -- oftentimes the politician who tries to pull off the coup isn't the one in the lead spot when the dust settles. Rubio got under Trump's skin and got the most coverage he had received since Iowa, which suggests it might have had a different impact if he'd tried it months ago."

Bowing to that reality, conservatives have pivoted to a momentum-building "unity ticket," which would be initiated by Rubio conceding that he'd lost the primaries. Randy Barnett, a Georgetown law professor who had argued for a "Constitutionalist Party" to be formed if Trump took over the GOP, came around to unity as a better plan B.

"As the candidate currently with more delegates, Cruz would love to get enough support from Rubio’s delegates to secure the nomination," wrote Barnett in the National Review. "For Rubio, currently in third place, for whom holding his home state of Florida has now become a do-or-die situation, the idea of securing the vice presidency would be a valuable insurance policy. As a young man, he would have an inside track to the presidency in eight years. Our current immigration situation would likely be addressed by a Cruz-Rubio administration to the degree that the issue would no longer be any obstacle for him in 2024."

As shown by the MSNBC and CNN interviews, the buzz might be baseless, but it is buzz -- good enough to cycle into that day's questions. Erickson, who had disinvited Trump at the last minute from the last RedState conference that he led as that site's editor, has used his perch at The Resurgent to hint that a deal could come at any moment.

"The rumor is that Cruz will stay out of Rubio’s way in Florida and might even suggest people support Rubio in Florida," Erickson wrote yesterday afternoon. "Everywhere else, Rubio will stay out of Cruz’s way. On Wednesday, Rubio will join Ted Cruz as a unity ticket. That’s the rumor — the unconfirmed rumor, but the rumor that has people buzzing nonetheless. Did I mention it is a rumor?"

Within an hour, Cruz had announced a Friday morning rally in Orlando. And within six hours, the debate ended with no Rubio deal.

At The Resurgent, the dream was just that much closer to fruition.

"No sooner does it become evident that the non-Trump GOP (meaning the GOP, more or less as it was before July) is aligning behind Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in a likely unity ticket, do we see a foreshadow of the attacks the political left will level at them," wrote site contributor Steve Berman.