Did Marco Rubio endorse Ted Cruz last night? Not exactly, but for all practical purposes the former presidential hopeful signaled his support for the Republican runner-up for the nomination in an interview with Mark Levin. At the same time, Rubio appears to have dismissed the idea of a contested-convention battle for the nomination for himself, via the Tampa Bay Times’ Alex Leary:

Marco Rubio still isn’t endorsingTed Cruz, but said he would support the Texan on a second ballot in the event of a contested convention.

“I hope that they’ll nominate a conservative,” Rubio told Mark Levin, adding the only one who ”fits that criteria is Ted Cruz.”

Why not endorse? Perhaps that might look too much like a withdrawal, which could arguably set Rubio’s delegates free — and some might migrate to either Donald Trump or John Kasich, even if Cruz might get more of them. Rubio has tried to retain control of his delegates in anticipation of a contested convention, in an effort that could have been construed as a distant hope of somehow ending up as a consensus compromise candidate.

Rubio, however, seems at peace with being out of the mix. In reality, as much as people like Rubio, he would probably be low on the list for alternatives anyway. In the case where neither Trump nor Cruz could seal the deal at the convention, John Kasich would have pole position as the party savior, especially given how critical Ohio is to GOP hopes for the White House. Failing that, delegates might tend to look outward rather than choose a candidate from the race, but it would have to be a pretty desperate situation to even get to Kasich. Cruz has out-organized and out-hustled everyone, and it seems pretty clear that Cruz would likely win after the first ballot.

At least, it’s obvious to Team Cruz, and maybe they’re right, says the Washington Post, although it might take several ballots to get enough delegates unbound for a Cruz victory:

Trump’s path to amassing the 1,237 delegates he needs to win outright has only gotten narrower after losing to Cruz in Wisconsin and other recent contests, and would require him to perform better in the remaining states than he has to this point.

In addition, based on the delegate selections made by states and territories, Cruz is poised to pick up at least 130 more votes on a second ballot, according to a Washington Post analysis. That tally surpasses 170 delegates under less conservative assumptions — a number that could make it impossible for Trump to emerge victorious. …

When the presidential nomination vote is held at the convention, 95 percent of the delegates will be bound to the results in their states for the first vote, giving Trump his best shot at securing a majority.

But if Trump falls short, the convention will cast a second ballot in which more than 1,800 delegates from 31 states — nearly 60 percent of the total — will be unbound and allowed to vote however they want. By the third round, 80 percent of the delegates would be free, sparking a potential free-for-all that could continue for several more rounds.

Having Rubio hail him as the last real conservative left in the race will no doubt help Cruz. But first, he has to keep Trump from winning on the first ballot, and that’s still a tall order.

Update: Lots of pushback from readers on this, claiming that Rubio didn’t actually say he’d back Cruz. Georgia Rai highlighted the relevant part of the transcript on Twitter:

I don’t actually see much daylight between what Rubio said and the takeaway many got from it. Rubio says in one breath that the only real conservative still campaigning for the nomination is Ted Cruz, and then in the next breath says that delegates should nominate a conservative on a subsequent ballot. YMMV, but that sounds a lot like a tacit endorsement, and certainly doesn’t sound as though Rubio’s positioning himself as the alternative.

Rubio himself declined to elaborate earlier today:

The Florida senator said Wednesday that his remarks Tuesday to Mark Levin that he wants a conservative and that Cruz is the only candidate left that “fits the criteria” were not an official endorsement.

“I’m not endorsing in this race right now. I don’t have any announcement to make, I was just answering the question,” Rubio told reporters.

So it’s not an endorsement, but Rubio thinks Cruz is the only conservative left in the race, and that a conservative needs to win the nomination. Some assembly may or may not be required.