Rubio notches first win but suffers setbacks on Super Tuesday
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Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Kaepernick deserves to be in the NFL Congress — when considering women’s health, don’t forget about lung cancer Anti-Maduro Venezuelans not unlike anti-Castro Cubans of yore MORE, viewed by many as the last great hope for the Republican establishment this presidential election cycle, suffered a tough night on Super Tuesday.

The Florida senator was spared the indignity of a shutout by posting a late victory in Minnesota's caucuses, but that will do little to quell questions about whether he can mount a serious challenge to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRed states find there’s no free pass on Medicaid changes from Trump Trump meets with Moon in crucial moment for Korea summit The Memo: Trump flirts with constitutional crisis MORE.

In media interviews throughout the night, Rubio was repeatedly forced to defend his multitude of second- and third-place showings.

He is likely to end Super Tuesday with only about half the delegates of Trump and running well behind Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE

In several big Super Tuesday states — including Texas, the largest delegate prize of the day — Rubio is flirting with the threshold for qualifying for any delegates at all.

He was mocked on social media for much of the night as a perpetual also-ran, while pundits expressed bafflement over his inability to break through.

“Rubio had a rough night,” conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News.

Democratic strategist David Axelrod said on CNN the Floridian was “the big loser” of the day.

And John Kasich’s chief strategist, John Weaver, needled Rubio as “more hyped than Crystal Pepsi.”

“He has flopped even worse,” Weaver continued. “Even a well-conceived, high-financed marketing campaign won’t work if people don’t want to buy the product.”

Rubio dominated the news cycle this week as he sought to humiliate and embarrass Trump, but the billionaire businessman weathered the attacks and scooped up delegates on Super Tuesday.

Trump posted victories in Arkansas, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Massachusetts, Vermont and Tennessee. GOP Sen. Ted Cruz won in his home state of Texas and pulled out a surprise victory in Oklahoma. 

Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, did not have a spectacular Super Tuesday, but will move on emboldened to make the case that with three wins under his belt, he’s best positioned to take on Trump.

“This is now a two-man race,” said Kellyanne Conway, who runs a pro-Cruz super-PAC.

“If all those folks trying to stop Donald Trump are serious, they will coalesce around Ted Cruz, the one man who can beat Donald Trump because he has actually beaten Donald Trump. Super Tuesday was a bust for others. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersClinton backs Georgia governor hopeful on eve of primary The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Frenzy over Kennedy retirement rumors | Trump challenges DOJ Bernie Sanders announces Senate reelection bid MORE won more states than Rubio, Kasich and Carson combined.”

Even one of Cruz’s fiercest critics, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Graham: Trump will 'end North Korea’s threat to the American homeland' in his first term Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers weigh in after Texas school shooting MORE (R-S.C.), conceded that may be the case.

"You know Ted Cruz is not my favorite, by any means,” Graham said in an interview with CBS. “But we may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump, and I'm not so sure that would work.”

Rubio is pushing back strongly against the growing idea that he’s merely a media sensation who repeatedly fails to deliver on his potential. He said his campaign was never built to succeed on Super Tuesday, when the map is dominated by states in the Deep South. 

The senator noted he’s still collecting delegates in this proportional phase of the contest, and says he came out of nowhere to challenge Trump in Virginia, where the two will split the plurality of delegates.

Rubio also kicked back at Cruz, arguing that the Texas Republican’s firewall in Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee had been blown up by Trump. He said the territory would only be more unfavorable for Cruz moving forward.

Rubio argued that he only just recently turned his attention to “unmasking” Trump as a con man.

The senator will now focus on his home state, where he faces a must-win contest on March 15. Polls show Trump is up by about 20 points in that critical winner-take-all primary.

“I don’t believe he’s up by 20 points and in fact I know he’s not,” Rubio said in an interview on Fox News in which he guaranteed victory.

Either way, the real estate mogul will be waiting for Rubio there and seeking to punch him out of the race once and for all.

Trump held his victory speech from near his home in Palm Beach, where he said he’s preparing to “spend so much time in Florida.”

“We’ve got about a 20-point lead,” Trump said. “I know that a lot of groups and special interests and lobbyists who want to have their little senator do exactly as they want, they’re going to put $20 or $25 million into it over the next two weeks and frankly that’s fine. If he wins they’ll have total control, but he’s not going anywhere anyway.”

With Trump favored to win, Rubio is embracing the role of underdog.

“Despite the fact that we’ve shown we can win delegates all across the country, there’s no doubt they’re still going to treat me like an underdog,” he said in a late night fundraising email to supporters. “You know what? That’s fine: I’m happy to be an underdog. We’re a country of underdogs."