GREER, S.C. — Marco Rubio suddenly wants to talk.
At 22,000 feet, sipping Dr Pepper and sharing his stash of Twix bars. In a Cracker Barrel over blueberry pancakes. At a news conference until there are no more questions.
He chats about how he couldn’t bring himself to tell his sons why front-runner Donald Trump was bleeped. Or how Jeb Bush was “missing in action.” Or how he emails Mitt Romney and texts Nikki Haley.
And more. A lot more.
Long guarded by aides vigilantly limiting his exposure, Rubio has abruptly morphed into a freewheeling raconteur in front of a press pack that he has kept at a distance since launching his presidential run last April.
The U.S. senator from Florida says he always planned to open up this way as the nomination battle moved beyond the more intimate early states, where his time was dominated by meeting voters one-on-one. But the shift feels more like a prescription for healing the deep wounds left by his devastating showing at the last GOP debate, where he was mocked for being too scripted and robotic after uttering the same phrase four times.
That image not only derailed Rubio’s bid for success in New Hampshire, but it also threatens to sink his entire campaign if he does not recover in the South Carolina primary a week from Saturday.
It is hard to win as an unflattering caricature drawn by your opponents, so Rubio is sketching over that image.
Here in South Carolina, he invited a small group of reporters to interview him on board his chartered jet en route to the Greenville area Thursday. Earlier, he and his wife, Jeanette, answered questions from a larger group of journalists over breakfast at Cracker Barrel in Okatie. The previous day, he held forth for 45 minutes with reporters until there were no further questions.
It was a dramatic departure for Rubio, whose news conferences in the past were usually more formal affairs — limited to a handful of questions and generally lasting no longer than 10 minutes.
His hour-long charter flight interview also did not begin with an emphasis on his “new American century” theme, as is often the case. Instead, it started with Twix bars: Rubio wanted to demonstrate how cold and hard they were after explaining at breakfast that he had cracked a molar biting into one.
Sitting with his jacket off and a pack of Extra Polar Ice Gum and a can of Dr Pepper at his fingertips, Rubio dived into topics that he and his aides are usually reluctant to discuss on the record: strategy and process.
“Now we’re getting into bigger states. We’ll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can’t shake that many,” Rubio said. “So we’re going to have to reach people through earned media a little bit more, which means we’re going to have to kind of shift our dynamic in that direction.”
Rubio sized up his opponents. “I still think there’s a significant number of people in our party that will never support him,” he said of Trump. He later added: “Trump is not ideological. Trump is attitudinal. It’s populism.”
Sen. Ted Cruz’s enthusiastic base gives the Texan a “floor” of support, but “the question is: How high is his ceiling?” Rubio said.
Bush’s problem, in Rubio’s view: “On the major issues facing the conservative movement over the last seven years, you know, he’s been basically missing in action.”
Rubio said Trump struck a nerve in him at a recent rally when he repeated a backer’s crude language about Ted Cruz, sparking curiosity in Rubio’s sons when the remark was bleeped in a newscast they watched in their New Hampshire hotel room.
“The commentator said it was another word for cat,” Rubio recalled. “And my boys wanted to know: ‘What was the word? What was the word?’ And I said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ I had to make something up. And it bothered me.”
Rubio’s four children have been doing schoolwork remotely as they have traveled with him and his wife for the past two weeks. They might return home to Miami on Monday before coming back for the GOP primary here, he said.
Seeing their father attacked in TV ads does not faze them, according to Rubio, who said his 13-year-old daughter, Daniella, gives him regular updates. “Hey, Dad, so-and-so is attacking you for this, or so-and-so called you that,” he recalled her saying.
Even as Rubio is treading fresh ground in his chats with reporters, he has continued to use some of the same talking points he has voiced at rallies and town halls. Repeating himself is what got him into big trouble at the last debate.
“Usually in politics, you get in trouble for saying different things,” Rubio said. “I may be the first one ever that gets, you know, criticized for saying the same thing.”
Democratic activists taunted Rubio by following him around in robot costumes during the final two days of the New Hampshire campaign. They have done the same at some of his events in South Carolina.
Haley, South Carolina’s governor, has not made an endorsement in the race. Rubio said that he would “love” to have her support and that he keeps in touch with her, mostly through texting. It is not clear that she will move off the sidelines.
Rubio also stays in touch with Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee. “He likes to email,” he said.
The candidate said he peruses the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal on his iPad. However, he watches “very little cable news.”
“I just don’t have the time,” he said.
A big football fan and former college player, Rubio this week likened his disastrous debate to being beaten as a defensive back who has to quickly regroup before the next play. He also drew broader parallels between the campaign and athletic competition, at times sounding like a coach giving himself a pep talk.
“I don’t think you can have highs if you don’t have lows,” he said.