Sidestepping Iowa, John Kasich Is Hedging His Bets On New Hampshire
While most of the presidential field descends on Iowa for next week's caucuses, at least one candidate won't be there. Ohio Gov. John Kasich plans to hold a town hall in New Hampshire on Iowa caucus night.
He has held more town halls in the Granite State than any other candidate — 80 to date, with plans to surpass 100.
Kasich is spending so much time in New Hampshire, he's even become comfortable joking about it.
"I'm just glad you don't have an income tax here, because I might be qualified as a resident," Kasich told a crowd Tuesday in the small town of New Boston.
Some folks chuckled as the governor continued, pleading for their vote.
"I really, really, really would like your vote," Kasich said. "I hope you'll think about it seriously. Cause I would like to go on with this message. And, if I get snuffed out in New Hampshire, it's ballgame over."
That last line is a clue as to why the governor has been blanketing the state for months. He needs to win the crowded establishment lane in New Hampshire (that lane includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush).
And, so, Kasich is trying to build an organic operation through intimate town halls. In New Boston on Tuesday, about 100 people gathered in a tavern, some of them sitting on leather couches around a fireplace. At other pit stops, the governor shared a stage with the American flag, his campaign slogan and a national debt clock that counted up as he spoke. (Kasich prides himself on balancing the federal budget with Bill Clinton in the 1990s.)
A Quieter Campaign
The Ohio governor doesn't give long, prepared stump speeches. He talks to people for 15 to 20 minutes and then spends the bulk of his time answering questions.
"He's not loud; he doesn't scream," said Karen Grybko, 57, from neighboring Lyndeborough. "He doesn't put anybody down. You know, there's a lot of negativity in the campaigns, both Democrats and the Republicans, and he only tells us why we should vote for him, and not why we shouldn't vote for somebody else. And, I guess I like that."
Grybko considers herself an independent, but she says the last time she voted for a Republican presidential candidate was 1980 — Ronald Reagan.
Kasich is trying to appeal to an unusual ideological spectrum — lifelong Republicans, self-described independents and even Democrats.
"I really came in kind of undecided," said Democrat Linda Bimbo, who came to a Kasich town hall because her friend asked her to. "But, I love this guy. I love his experience."
Bimbo, who works at the University of New Hampshire, said she had also been considering both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton this campaign season, but now likes Kasich more.
"I'll tell you the one thing that made the biggest difference to me is that he talks about working both sides of the aisle and knowing that you have to have cooperation from both Democrats and Republicans in order to get anything done."
'He Should Already Have A Plan'
Even voters who say they're still uncommitted praise the governor for being "reasonable" or "experienced." But, that praise comes with reservations about casting a ballot for him.
"I think he comes across as typically Midwestern likable — he's extremely likable," said Republican Tom Eifler. But, he added, "I don't think he did a fabulous job at every single question."
Eifler was not impressed at the governor's tendency to say "I don't know" or "we'll have to think about that," in response to various policy questions.
"I wasn't comfortable with that," said Eifler. "He's running for president; he should already have a plan for what he's gonna do."
For other undecided voters, like Don Grosso, 76, it's a simpler calculation. Grosso says Kasich is his top choice for now, but he wants to see how the Ohio governor fares in the polls in the next couple of weeks.
"I want a winner. I want someone who can beat whoever the Democratic nominee is," said Grosso.
And, Grosso is not 100 percent sure Kasich can.
Will it work?
In recent weeks, it seems like Kasich has been experiencing a bit of "microsurge" in the New Hampshire polls. In the Real Clear Politics polling average, he currently leads the other establishment candidates. And, he has the endorsement of some high-profile local newspapers, including the Boston Globe.
But, Andy Smith — with the University of New Hampshire Survey Center — is skeptical of calling Kasich's current situation a bump. He points out that the only clear data point is that in essentially every poll since July, business mogul-turned-politician Donald Trump has clearly led the pack (by double-digit margins).
"You've got Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and John Kasich all essentially clumped together in a second-place position," Smith added.
The Kasich campaign insists it has built a "scalable organization," in other early voting states, such as South Carolina and Nevada, even though the current focus is New Hampshire.
"There are people that we are competing with that we want to beat," said John Weaver, the chief strategist for the Kasich campaign, who has previously worked for both John McCain and Jon Huntsman's campaigns. "But I think whether that means finishing first, second, third whatever — I can't say ... Winning can be defined a lot of different ways."
The big question: Even if Kasich finishes in a respectable second place in New Hampshire — what's next for his campaign?
"I think what you'll see is one of those four more mainstream Republicans: Christie, Kasich, Bush or Rubio — finish better than the others and try to convince the other candidates through the press and through pressure within the party to drop out and to solidify their support behind them," said Smith. "I think that's really the strategy [of] all of these guys. Unfortunately, they're all doing the same thing."
But, some of the others — notably Rubio and Bush — have been campaigning more extensively in other early voting states, like South Carolina and Nevada.
So Kasich is trying to give himself an edge by zeroing in on New Hampshire. On Tuesday, he was the only major candidate in the state, essentially getting the voters and local media all to himself.
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