Forty-eight hours ago, the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the super PACs that supported him had apparently found a cohesive, potent attack on Donald Trump -- that the mogul was a "con artist" who defrauded "the little guy."
Any attempt to cohere around an anti-Trump message is gone. For the past 24 hours, Rubio and surrogates have eviscerated Trump for a rambling non-response to a question about endorsements from white supremacists. And for just the last hour, Rubio allies and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) have demanded answers from Trump on BuzzFeed's report that the candidate had more immigration wiggle room than he'd admitted.
Citing "sources familiar with the recording and transcript" of Trump's candidate interview with the New York Times, BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith said that Trump had given the impression -- off the record -- that he was flexible on his pledge to deport every undocumented immigrant. Mass deportation, suggested one Times editor, might be Trump's opening bid in a negotiation, not his do-or-die policy.
"What exactly did Trump say about immigration, about deportations, about the wall?" asked Smith. "Did he abandon a core promise of his campaign in a private conversation with liberal power brokers in New York?"
It took Cruz no time at all to demand that Trump ask the newspaper to release the conversation.
Cruz, gaggle live on CNN: "I call on Donald: Ask the New York Times to release the tape"
— Shane Goldmacher (@ShaneGoldmacher) February 29, 2016
Joe Pounder, the opposition researcher who has become Rubio's most effective messenger on Twitter, led a volley of Rubio supporters in pushing the story.
— Joe Pounder (@PounderFile) February 29, 2016
Hours later, Rubio himself told a crowd in Arkansas that Trump had told the newspaer "what he really believes about immigration, what sounds like what he told them was different than what he is telling you but it was off the record."
"Donald Trump should ask The New York Times to release the audio of his interview with him so we can see exactly what it is he truly believes about this issue that he has made the cornerstone of his campaign," said Rubio.
The innuendo here may guarantee that Trump gets asked whether he wants the tape to be released. But the reportable substance of the interview mirrors something Trump said to the Washington Examiner's Byron York just a week after the Times interview. Pressed by York, Trump admitted there might be "give and take" when it came to his hard-line positions.
So I look at deporting all illegal immigrants. I look at a temporary ban of Muslims coming to the United States. They get a lot of attention. Are they opening positions in a negotiation?
I'm not saying there can't be some give and take, but at some point we have to look at these things. You look at the radical Islamic terrorism and you look at what's going on, we have to take a serious look. There's tremendous hatred. You look at illegal immigration and all that's taking place with respect to illegal immigration, whether it's the crime or the economy, I mean, it affects many different elements. It doesn't mean I'm hard and fast 100 percent, but we [need] to get a lot of what I'm asking for, or we're not going to have a country any more.
So they are opening positions?
They are very strong positions. It doesn't mean you're not going to negotiate a little bit, but I guess there will always be some negotiation. But they are very strong positions, and I would adhere to those positions very strongly. That doesn't mean that at some point we won't talk a little bit about some negotiation. Who wouldn't do that?
Trump is a unique figure in American rhetoric, both undisciplined about his words and ruthlessly on-message. It's possible he revealed more to the Times -- that's why rivals will demand he get the tape released. It's more possible, even likely, that he give the Times a version of his "give and take" spiel.
Trump's "tell it like it is" persona has won him thousands of votes. It has also survived umpteen reality-based attacks that cited his own words against him. In the white heat of Super Tuesday, the "secret tape" is not just a MacGuffin, but a demonstration of how hard it is to stick to an anti-Trump message.