Associated Press

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Just for a moment, Marco Rubio stops trying to explain what went wrong in New Hampshire. He needs to find out why Dominick is crying.

"She pinched me," the teary 8-year-old tells his father, who’s in the midst of an interview, pointing to a small red welt on his left hand.

"Who pinched you?!" Rubio asks, before his wife shepherds the boy back to the kids table where he and his three siblings are eating breakfast.

The momentary domestic dispute at a South Carolina Cracker Barrel restaurant was perhaps a welcome interruption for a Republican presidential candidate who has spent much of the week explaining a disappointing finish in New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary that raised serious questions about his long-term viability. Now facing the biggest test of his presidential campaign, Rubio is pulling back the curtain on his family life to help re-focus attention away from his campaign shortfalls.

"It helps me to see them every day," Rubio told hundreds of voters gathered inside a Greenville Christian school auditorium on Thursday. "The most important job any of us will have is to be a parent or a spouse," he added.

The 44-year-old Florida senator, his wife, Jeanette, and their four children — Amanda, 15, Daniella, 13, Anthony, 10, and 8-year-old Dominick — have trekked across the Republican primary calendar together for 13 consecutive days. And eager to shift the focus away from New Hampshire, his campaign is pulling back the curtain on the Rubio road show.

While the Rubio family would make regular appearances at the bigger moments on the trail in the past — debates and higher-profile interviews — they had never before experienced the grueling pace of presidential politics as a unit.

They came together in Iowa the day before Rubio scored a strong third-place finish in the leadoff caucuses, moved directly to New Hampshire where a debate misstep led to an alarming fifth-place finish, and stayed on in South Carolina where Rubio’s presidential aspirations may live or die based on his performance in the state’s Feb. 20 primary.

Jumping city to city, they sleep in the same hotel suite most nights, with Rubio often falling asleep before all of the children, Jeanette Rubio said. The kids spend most mornings doing homework, which was coordinated with their various teachers before they left Miami. It’s unclear how much longer it will last. But Rubio says he went three weeks without seeing them last month and doesn’t want to do that again.

The family is a big part of his message, but they often do little more than say hello to the audience when introduced. The boys sometimes stay on stage as Rubio delivers his remarks, as they did Thursday in Greenville, but Rubio leaves it up to them to decide if they want to stay each time.

Rubio, of course, is not the only presidential contender whose children are beginning to play a more significant role on the campaign trail.

GOP front-runner Donald Trump regularly appears with his children — particularly his oldest, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric, all in their 30s. Democrat Hillary Clinton has deployed her daughter Chelsea and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who she refers to as her "not-so-secret weapon."

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his wife, Heidi, have two young daughters, Catherine, 5, and Caroline, 7, who make periodic appearances on the campaign trail. Cruz has a dedicated play room for the girls inside his Houston campaign headquarters.

But Rubio, more than any of his Republican rivals, is seeing the 2016 contest through the eyes of his children as he tries to mount a comeback in South Carolina.

In a Thursday interview, he noted that his kids were watching television over the weekend when news of a particularly aggressive Trump insult, which they did not report directly, instead using "cat" as an alternate word.

"My boys wanted to know what he said. I couldn’t tell them. It bothered me," Rubio told The Associated Press. "Now I happen to be his opponent in this race, so people might say that’s self-serving. But it was a real moment for me."

Rubio continued: "Look, it works for Donald. Obviously there are people that that appeals to. I’m just telling you as a parent, if my kids talked that way, they’d be in trouble."

The Rubio children also starred in a story about his conciliatory speech Tuesday night after a deeply disappointing New Hampshire finish.

"My kids were watching," Rubio said. "They learned what it is you do when you face disappointment."

The comments came during an interview aboard Rubio’s campaign jet as he crisscrossed South Carolina on Thursday. It was one of several moments of expanded access this week designed to drive better media coverage and challenge critics trying to cast him as robotic. Advisers also note that increased media access to Rubio and his family was always part of their plan as the 2016 contest took a more national shape.

The campaign invited a handful of reporters to share breakfast with the Rubios in between South Carolina campaign stops on Thursday. Before addressing his political challenges, Rubio and his wife explained that they prefer Cracker Barrel because it’s kid-friendly.

"Every time they come here they like to get some sort of gadget," Jeanette Rubio said, prompting a distinctly fatherly response from her husband. "How many more of the things are we going to buy?" he asked. "They always lose it or break it anyway."

With his children eating at an adjacent table, he soon turned back to presidential politics: "I don’t know about how it will work out," he said. "We’re prepared to go to the end."

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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