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This is the most painful 180 seconds of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign so far

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) talks with patrons, answers questions, and stands for photos after speaking to a packed room during a campaign house party in Manchester, N.H., in April. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Marco Rubio has had a very good last month or so.  From his presidential announcement in mid April until, roughly, Sunday morning, that is.

On Sunday morning, this happened.

That's Rubio's back and forth with "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace over Iraq. At issue is whether Rubio flip-flopped in his views on Iraq from saying it was not a mistake to invade the country to insisting that knowing what we know now he would not have done so.

Look, I generally get Rubio's position.  He is saying that it wasn't a "mistake" because George W. Bush couldn't have known or, at least, didn't know, that reports of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction were false. But, given the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that those reports were false, Rubio believes that the war should not (and would not) have been conducted.

(Sidenote: Rubio's insistence that even George W. Bush would not have got into Iraq knowing what we know now isn't, well, right. The Post's FactChecker gave Rubio four Pinocchios for that claim this morning.)

The problem for Rubio is that it takes him three minutes to explain the difference in his answers effectively and, in between, it feels like a "Who's on First" routine by Abbott and Costello.

I won't reproduce all of the back and forth between Wallace and Rubio here but suffice it to say you are likely to wind up more confused about Rubio's position than you were when the interview started. He utters phrases like "I don't understand the question you're asking" and seems entirely flummoxed.

The main takeaway is this: Rubio sounds like a politician, trying to talk himself out of a corner that he backed himself into.  Lots of words, lots of careful phrasing and not a whole heck of a lot of clarity.

Now, some Republicans are insisting that the fault lies not with Rubio but with Wallace, who refused to understand what the Florida Senator was saying.  Here's National Review's Patrick Brennan making that case:

Quizzing GOP candidates about their views on the Iraq War is entirely legitimate, but at a certain point, trying to catch candidates in a possible flip-flop over an impossible hypothetical becomes a waste of time. Rubio’s answer here seems perfectly reasonable: The U.S. should not have invaded Iraq if it could have known there were no weapons of mass destruction there. But he refuses to characterize Bush’s decision as a “mistake,” since Bush did not and almost certainly could not have known whether Iraq really did or did not have WMDs, and that’s where Wallace keeps pressing him. Asking Rubio whether he thinks it was “a mistake knowing what we know now” almost doesn’t even make sense.

I get that point. But Wallace isn't the one running for president — whether or not Rubio and his allies like that or think it's fair.

Rubio's biggest challenge in this race is proving to a somewhat skeptical Republican party (and public more broadly) that he is up to the challenge of being president despite his relative newness on the national stage.  Rubio seemed to take a major step toward doing just that with his very well-received speech on foreign policy on last week.  But, his inability to answer Wallace's question(s) in 30 seconds or less — Rubio sort-of gets it right by the last 45 (or so) seconds of the interview — has knocked that speech entirely out of the news and replaced it with questions of flip-floppery.

That's a terrible trade for Rubio.

At the Council on Foreign Relations in May, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) delivered his first speech on foreign policy as a presidential hopeful. (Video: YouTube/Council on Foreign Relations)