CHARLESTON, S.C. — Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, fresh from an upset second-place finish in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, is bullish about his chances to capture the GOP nomination.
But his campaign already faces the staggering prospect of defeat in several upcoming nominating contests, and he will need to fight to maintain relevance until the mid-March primaries — an inordinate amount of time for a candidate who still has only 53 percent name recognition nationally.
“This is going to be a long road, but this was an important step,” Kasich told reporters early Wednesday morning as he flew to Charleston. “I always felt the ground game would work. Now, you know, we’ve got to raise more money.”
The Ohio governor edged out a victory over his most immediate competitors for the party establishment vote in the Granite State on Tuesday night, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). That victory could give him momentum ahead of the Feb. 20 primary here in South Carolina and potentially encourage the level of donor support he will need to keep his campaign viable.
But Kasich and his advisers are well aware of the uphill battle they face, particularly in Southern states where voters are skeptical of his positions on immigration and health-care reform. Here in South Carolina, Kasich trails nearly all of his rivals and averages just 2 percent support in state polls.
Looming over the race is real estate mogul Donald Trump, whose victory in New Hampshire has quieted skeptics who remained unconvinced his campaign could transform his enormous crowds into actual voters. Trump, who has unlimited means to compete, received 36 percent of the vote Tuesday night; Kasich took about 16 percent.
Kasich conceded Wednesday morning that his campaign has a “long haul” ahead as he approaches less friendly primary contests but remained optimistic.
“I think that it’s going to be a long haul … and, you know, we’re just going to keep plugging,” he said. “All the questions, all the doubts and everything, I’ve been hearing this for so long, I guess for about 30 years. So I’m sort of used to it.”
“We’ll just keep doing what we do,” he said.
The campaign now needs an infusion of cash from donors who the campaign hopes will see him as a clear alternative to Trump, whose tough anti-immigrant rhetoric and penchant for controversy has worried many party leaders in Washington and across the country. The money will be necessary for sustaining the campaign through a rough road before Midwestern states vote in March.
“We’ll go to South Carolina, but we’re going to go through South Carolina on to the rest of the states,” Kasich said. “You know, I think places in the South we’ll do very well, and then at some point we’re going to get to the Midwest.”
Campaign advisers are quick to admit that any progress they make toward amassing the necessary delegates to win the nomination will be gradual.
Kasich’s all-in strategy in New Hampshire, where he spent an immense amount of time in recent months and hosted 106 town-hall events, will be difficult to replicate. A sophisticated voter-tracking effort that identified and cultivated potential voters bolstered the campaign’s traditional town-hall strategy, with a strong emphasis on turning out supporters on Election Day.
“John Kasich based a big bet on New Hampshire and it paid off. The biggest part of the bet is that there’s one resource in the campaign that can’t be replicated, and that’s the candidate,” said Kasich’s senior national adviser Tom Rath. “But we see the power of New Hampshire to reset this race.”
The campaign’s ability to replicate that strategy, at least in the upcoming nominating contests, seems unlikely. The New Hampshire strategy came with “a big sacrifice for people [on] finance and in the other states,” Rath said.
Kasich will also have to brace for the inevitable attacks that will begin from other candidates and their allied super PACs. That will put his commitment to running a positive and optimistic campaign to the test.
“I know we can’t just go through this, you know, like falling off the turnip and saying that everything is just going to be positive, because I’m going to have to respond to some of this stuff,” Kasich said. “But I’m starting to really think we’re on to something.”