In the spin room after Saturday's Republican presidential debate, Marco Rubio's aides were adamant: Their candidate had a good night.
"Every other campaign said before this debate started that they had one singular goal, which was to take out Marco Rubio," senior adviser Todd Harris told reporters. "They threw their best shots, and they didn't do it. There was a big rough-and-tumble at the start, Marco got stronger every single minute, and by the end of the debate, we raised more money during this debate than we've raised during any other debate."
In an ABC interview on Sunday morning, Rubio himself doubled down on the notion that he'd performed well and wasn't ashamed of his talking points, despite a near consensus in the media that his repeated use of a canned line about President Obama — and the forceful manner in which Chris Christie called him out on it — had exposed a weakness. "Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing," Rubio said repeatedly.
"This Week" host George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Rubio's repetition, informed him that Democrats were already circulating it, and asked the Florida senator what went wrong.
"Well, actually, I would pay them to keep running that clip, because that's what I believe passionately," Rubio replied.
But by Tuesday, after a fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Rubio changed his mind. In an address to supporters, he blamed a bad day at the polls on a bad night at the podium.
"I want you to understand something," he told his supporters. "Our disappointment tonight is not on you; it's on me. It's on me. I did not — I did not do well on Saturday night, so listen to this: That will never happen again. That will never happen again."
(Side note: Maybe repetition wasn't the best strategy for a mea culpa about repetition?)
It's probably an oversimplification to say that Rubio fared so poorly in New Hampshire simply because of one lousy debate. Polling data don't convincingly support that explanation, as The Fix's Philip Bump explained earlier today.
But with the media clearly not buying the spin that Rubio actually did well on Saturday, he's doing his best to shift the narrative into less-damning territory. He's now hoping the press will go along with the idea that he came in fifth place in New Hampshire because of one uncharacteristically bad debate, not because of some deeper flaw in his candidacy.
It makes a lot of sense as a rejiggered strategy. And it's working, to some degree. Check out these headlines:
New York Times: How a debate misstep sent Marco Rubio tumbling in New Hampshire
Policy Mic: Rubio's disastrous debate performance cost him New Hampshire — and possibly the nomination
The Hill: Rubio blames debate struggles for poor N.H. finish
Daily Mail: Rubio the Robot admits he was Republicans' biggest loser of the night thanks to debate disaster
This isn't exactly great press, but it's probably the best damage-control that Rubio could hope for at this point. If the media sends the message that Rubio's problem was a simple, one-off flub, it's easier for him to send the message that the solution will be simple, too.
Indeed, it's as if the new narrative is: Let's dispel with this fiction that Marco Rubio has a serious problem. And to the extent that this becomes the version of events the media embraces, Rubio can get past this.