Kasich's Path Hinges on Midwest -- If He Lasts Till Then

Kasich's Path Hinges on Midwest -- If He Lasts Till Then
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John Kasich insists he isn’t going anywhere.

Facing mounting pressure to exit the Republican presidential primary following fifth place finishes in South Carolina and Nevada, the Ohio governor has no intention of dropping out of the race, he said repeatedly this week, calling himself the only remaining candidate who can beat front-runner Donald Trump.

That’s led to sparring between Kasich and Marco Rubio, who are battling to emerge as the Republican establishment’s consensus pick to take on Trump. Some in the GOP have called on Kasich to drop out, suggesting that Rubio is the best suited to challenge real estate tycoon, and that by remaining in the race he strips support from the Florida senator. Kasich laughed when presented with that argument earlier this week, calling it “funny” and “ridiculous.”

On the flip side, after a poll Thursday showed Rubio losing in his home state to Trump by double digits, Kasich’s team sent an email labeling it a “death knell” for the freshman senator’s campaign. Some of his campaign staff took to Twitter to openly call for Rubio to drop out of the race.

The second-term governor has pinned his hopes on a strong showing March 8 in his neighboring state of Michigan, followed a week later by the Buckeye State primary. In the meantime, nearly a dozen states with delegates awarded proportionally will vote on March 1. In those “Super Tuesday” contests, Kasich trails by margins similar to those in Nevada and South Carolina.

The question for his campaign remains whether the upbeat candidate can survive until those states in his wheelhouse vote next month. And if he can manage wins there, can they swing the race?

"We've spent far less money than other campaigns and my delegate count is frankly within a shadow of everybody else, and they've spent a fortune … attacking me," Kasich told reporters earlier this week, according to NBC. "So we're not going anywhere, folks."

But some within the GOP question whether mid-March is too late for him to swing his fortunes. On Tuesday, nearly a quarter of the party’s delegates will be awarded, and Kasich is unlikely to win any of the states outright. Nonetheless, he is campaigning throughout the Super Tuesday states, hoping to perform well enough to pick off some of the delegates up for grabs.

Kasich held events in Virginia, Georgia and Mississippi this week, all of which vote on Tuesday, as well as Louisiana, which votes on March 5. This weekend, he’ll hold a round of town-hall gatherings in Tennessee before going to Massachusetts and Vermont on Monday, all three of which vote next week. His campaign also launched new ads in the latter two ahead of the primaries there.

But those states are, for the most part, dominated by Trump, with Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz battling for second and Kasich trailing by double digits. After next week, Kasich will spend an entire week in Michigan – his top strategist John Weaver told The Detroit News they would “treat it like we’re running for governor” – hoping to notch his first win of the cycle more than a month after voting began.

Right now, Kasich trails Trump by 20 points in Michigan, according to the RealClearPolitics average, and he trailed by five points in an Ohio poll last week, though he was within the margin of error. His top supporters know that those two contests will mark the end of his campaign if he can’t perform well.

“He’s got to start winning, obviously,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, who endorsed his fellow Ohioan. “The path to the nomination means you have to win some states, but I feel really good about his path in a few of those states and he’s starting to build that momentum.”

Stivers said he’s been talking to some of his House colleagues about endorsing Kasich, but the biggest obstacle has been convincing them that he has a viable path to the nomination. He spoke on the House floor with a former Jeb Bush endorser Wednesday, who told Stivers he likes Kasich but is uncertain about the governor’s chances.

“I explained it to him,” Stivers said, but “explaining it to him is one thing, they need to see it too. That’s why Michigan is important. If he finishes a strong second in Michigan, I still think he continues to build the momentum, but you’ve got to finish first somewhere, so he’s working on it."

Doug Heye, a former communications director at the Republican National Committee, said even if Kasich does win both Michigan and Ohio, it might be too late. Many in the GOP are already wondering whether it’s too late for Rubio or Cruz to knock Trump off his perch, Heye said, and Ohio is still nearly three weeks away.

“If Michigan were this Tuesday and Ohio were this Tuesday, maybe we’re talking differently, but that’s far in the future,” Heye said. “He has been left out of the conversation, and the strategy that they’ve taken means that he may be left out of the conversation for a while longer. I just don’t know how that’s sustainable if you want to win."

Kasich’s pitch to voters is twofold: He has the right temperament and experience to be president and, more immediately, the capacity to win in November. Kasich’s team highlighted a poll earlier this week that showed him beating Hillary Clinton by 17 points in a general election matchup in Ohio – a crucial battleground without which no Republican has ever won the White House – and topping Sen. Bernie Sanders by 19 points there.

Kasich also hopes to appeal to a different type of voter than his Republican opponents do. Julie Appleby, 68, is a registered Democrat in Virginia, but attended a Kasich town-hall event in Richmond on Monday, and walked away “very impressed.” Appleby said she plans to support him in her state’s primary next week (Virginia has an open primary system where registered voters can vote for either party’s candidates) and could see herself supporting him in the general election.

“I think he’s a moderate and that’s what I like,” Appleby explained. “He’s not making promises he can’t keep. He’s very honest about ‘you don’t like what I say about this, then I can’t change that.’”

Reed Galen, a veteran of multiple Republican presidential campaigns, said Kasich has a path to the nomination, but it’s narrow. If Cruz wins Texas on Tuesday, Rubio notches his first win in one of the states and Trump dominates most of the others, Galen said, Kasich would be trailing considerably in the race for delegates.

“Every possible thing that they could foresee needing to happen has to happen at exactly the right time and exactly the right way and they can’t make any mistakes while they’re doing it,” Galen said of Kasich’s hopes. “It would be the greatest comeback story in American political history."

If Trump dominates on Tuesday, but Kasich notches wins in Michigan and Ohio, it could vindicate the campaign’s strategy of banking on mid-March. But it might be difficult to catch Trump outright at that point, potentially leading to a brokered convention in July, a possibility Kasich entertained earlier this week.

At an appearance in Gulfport, Miss., he said with a grin, “And if we end up in a brokered convention, I can’t think of a better city to have one in than Cleveland, Ohio.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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