Kasich, Not Trump, May Be Top Threat to Bush

Kasich, Not Trump, May Be Top Threat to Bush
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Donald Trump has been relentless in condemning Jeb Bush, calling him “low energy” and “incompetent.” While the insults hit a soft spot—Bush acknowledged as much Wednesday when he called for “high energy leadership”—it’s the competitors who aren’t attacking him he might have to worry about the most.

Over the past month, John Kasich has been moving in on Bush’s turf, gaining ground in the must-win state of New Hampshire. The Ohio governor is positioning himself as moderate Republicans’ viable alternative to Bush, with a more current resume and less baggage, while refraining from going after his Florida rival.

The RealClearPolitics average shows Trump leading the Granite State pack with 27 percent of the support, with Kasich at 11 percent and Bush one point behind in third place. As long as Trump outpaces the field by a wide margin there, the race for the number two spot figures to be the most competitive. Bush and Trump aren’t really going after the same voters, but he and Kasich are definitely doing so.  In a field this crowded, the true threat comes not from the polar opposite candidate, but the one trying to be most like you.

“Kasich is definitely trying to occupy Bush's lane ideologically, aiming for those moderate, somewhat conservative Republicans, of which there are so many in New Hampshire, and [who] should be Jeb’s bread and butter,” says Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “It's a concern for Bush, no question.”

Kasich is placing almost all of his eggs in the New Hampshire basket, believing a win there could propel him far beyond that primary, while Bush is running a national campaign. Still, the Granite State will be integral to each man’s future.

Both have based their campaigns on their records, an appeal to a broader electorate, compassion for the poor and displaced, and an overall uplifting message about the potential for the future. Unlike the other contenders, Kasich has been supportive of the Common Core education standards that Bush backs, and has been similarly open to some kind of legalization pathway for undocumented immigrants. Both men have long records of support for the anti-abortion movement and both come from key swing states. Each has emphasized—in a year in which political outsiders seem to be getting most of the love from the conservative grassroots—his experience in government: Bush as a two-term governor, and Kasich as a current governor and previously a fiscally conservative chairman of the House Budget Committee who did battle with Democrats in Washington.

But in an attempt to derail Kasich’s New Hampshire-centered strategy, Bush’s supporters and surrogates might start to question this upstart’s conservative credentials and his viability in a Republican primary. They are eager to talk about a Kasich campaign adviser named John Weaver. He was Jon Huntsman’s principal strategist in the former Utah governor’s failed 2012 presidential bid. As was the case with Huntsman, Weaver’s Republican credentials are under scrutiny, notwithstanding his assistance in John McCain’s 2000 New Hampshire win. In fact, he has also worked for Democrats. In addition, Kasich is one of the few Republican governors whose state didn’t opt out of the Medicaid expansion provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

“He’s the one Republican in the field that not only embraced Obamacare, but took it out in his dad’s station wagon and made out with it,” says Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who is not affiliated with a campaign. “It’s not a strategy to win a Republican primary.”

The Ohio chief executive has defended the Medicaid expansion as a moral issue, to the dismay of fellow Republicans (including those in his own legislature) while also opposing the law that made it possible. While rivals like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal have criticized him for his position, Kasich hasn’t backed away from it. (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also accepted some of the Medicaid funds.)

While Kasich has tried to focus on budgetary and other economic issues, even his pro-life credentials have come under scrutiny from anti-abortion groups. At a town-hall gathering last week, he called Roe v. Wade “the law of the land” when asked about the issue before quickly moving on to the next question. The governor opposes gay marriage, but says the Supreme Court has settled it. He garnered applause during the Cleveland debate earlier this month for saying, “Just because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean I can’t care about them or can’t love them.”

Kasich’s record of balancing the budget in Congress and erasing deficits as governor, and his recent electoral victories in must-win Ohio set him apart from Huntsman, who served in the Obama administration as ambassador to China before launching his presidential bid. Strategists also say that unlike Huntsman, Kasich isn’t going after fellow Republicans. And for now, he seems to have benefited from staying out of Trump’s way.

Bush, however, has different needs. After suffering relentless attacks from the frontrunner for several weeks, he has been fighting back. Although the brawl with Trump has gotten him into some trouble—he got bogged down on the controversial term “anchor babies” last week—it has also injected some much needed life and vigor into his campaign.

During a swing through Pensacola on Wednesday, Bush again didn’t hold back. “Go through these questions and what you'll find is this guy doesn't have a plan," Bush told reporters there, referring to Trump’s immigration stance. "He's appealing to people's angst and their anger. I want to solve problems so that we can fix this and turn immigration into what it's always been: an economic driver for our country."

The Trump vs. Bush feud could help propel the former Florida governor as the contrast candidate. It could also become a distraction and open the door to some of his rivals, like Kasich, or even Marco Rubio or Carly Fiorina.

“They can go under the radar and do their own thing while Jeb gets sucked into this thing with Trump,” Scala says. “Trump also put his finger on something when he says Jeb is not the most exciting candidate. ... New Hampshire voters tend to be biased towards what’s new in American politics. They may not wind up there, but they are at least attracted.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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