CASTLETON, Vt. – His chief rivals were crisscrossing the country, holding mega-rallies in airplane hangars and basketball arenas, trading zingers handmade for cable news. Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) spent one of his precious pre-Super Tuesday hours in this city of 4,717 people, on a college campus with half as many students, in an auditorium that fit 500.
He started with a joke about dessert.
“You know, I served with Bernie,” said Kasich, referring to the Vermont senator expected to win the other party’s Tuesday primary by a landslide. “I like his idea of free stuff. I have to tell ya, we should go one year – as soon as Lent is over – one year, free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream!”
It was jokey, discursive and almost about policy. Kasich, who is in no hurry to end his presidential race, is full of lines like that. In smaller settings than his rivals, he is delivering a Norman Rockwellian stump speech about an America where people hug each other more and tell kids to stay off drugs. He’s taking audience questions – a risk his rivals stopped taking after South Carolina.
And as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warns that any vote that does not go to him will nominate Donald Trump, Kasich is attracting a different sort of audience, one worried about the election’s stakes but unsure that a conservative senator in an insult contest should win it. In his final pre-Super Tuesday stops, he was fighting not quite for wins but for delegates in states other candidates were ignoring.
“Watching the debates on TV right now is like watching your parents fight,” said Art Moulton, 65, who showed up for Kasich’s speech in a shirt that read "United States: Back-to-Back World War Champs." "We need someone with experience who can operate on the whole machine."
The Republican establishment, if defined as the family of politicians and strategists who operate in and around Washington, sees the primary vote splitting into two pieces. The smaller piece is Trump’s electorate. The larger piece is everyone else’s. In this theory, Kasich’s insistence on stumping at least through Ohio, where he’ll “win or roll up the carpet,” is pure selfishness.
“It’s frustrating,” Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan said after last week’s debate. “The guy has no path to the nomination whatsoever. He’s not even going to qualify for all the delegates in Pennsylvania. I’m not exactly sure what their plan is. I think it’s foolish. Really, a vote for Kasich is a vote for Trump.”
The stop-Kasich campaign, however, is an echo of the stop-Trump campaign that has proven spectacularly ineffective for months. No Republicans outside of Rubio’s camp have gone on the record to say what Sullivan said. The closest they’ve gotten is intrigue, passed along anonymously to reporters, about party figures wanting Kasich out, or strong hints like what happened in Tennessee, where Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) praised him at a party dinner then turned around and endorsed Rubio.
But the governor has continued to score public endorsements and support. On Monday, he learned that former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who had thrown in with Jeb Bush, had gotten behind him.
“I believe Kasich should stay in and hopefully win Ohio,” said Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s senior strategist in 2008 and 2012.
At two pre-Super Tuesday stops, in Vermont and in Springfield, Mass., Kasich dismissed questions about his viability by arguing that he was the only Republican clearly defeating Donald Trump in a home state.
"I'm the most likely to win my state, between me and Rubio,” Kasich said in Vermont. “He's behind 20 points in his own state. I've said if I don't win Ohio, it'd be time to pack it in. But I'm going to win Ohio, and it's going to be a new day when I win Ohio.”
Depending on the results of tomorrow’s primary in Texas, that talking point might expire. It wouldn’t end the stop-Kasich campaign’s second problem – that the voters coming out to see him are not natural supporters of Rubio.
This was eloquently demonstrated in Springfield. Before Kasich’s town hall in a downtown convention center, more than a hundred Trump supporters rallied at city hall. Dozens of them walked a block to the Kasich event, taking seats and explaining how hard it was to decide between the two candidates – and only those two.
“After the first couple of debates I was impressed by Kasich’s experience and Trump on the issues,” said Michael Reed, 19, who wore a star-spangled tank top and shorts to take advantage of the tropical (for Massachusetts) 48-degree temperature. “I know the media hates Trump, and the media likes Rubio. But Rubio doesn’t have a track record on anything he’s talking about.”
James Ryan, 72, who saw Kasich in Springfield, had started the campaign by donating to Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.). He could not imagine himself voting for Trump, and for similar reasons he had ruled out Rubio.
“He has the experience to get things done, and a lot of people don’t,” Ryan said of Kasich. “Rubio’s one who doesn’t have the background to handle the job.”
Peter Zezima, 70, had gone through the same process, and shared Ryan’s concern about Rubio. With his wife, Jackie, he was hoping that Kasich could fight for the nomination if the primary stalemated.
“I’m hoping that it will go to a convention, where Kasich would be the reasonable choice,” said Zezima.
The sparse polling on this very boutique question – who might get John Kasich’s voters – has revealed no trends. Before the South Carolina primary, an NBC poll found that a quarter of Kasich voters were inclined to support Rubio if their man quit. One in six intended to support Trump.
That was while Jeb Bush remained in the race, however, and the voter seeking a candidate with executive experience had lost that choice weeks ago. In Vermont, the quandary of that voter was hard to miss. During Kasich’s Q&A, Jon Wallace, 54, asked Kasich whether he was familiar with any plans to use the Republican Party’s bylaws to “squelch the voice of the people” and foist a nominee on the party at a brokered convention.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a brokered convention,” said Kasich. “When you pick a president, you have to pick him on the up and up. And I have to tell you, what I’m seeing, with the name-calling, the insulting – this is no way to pick the president of the United States. It’s taking us down the rathole.”
Afterward, Wallace explained that he’d been reading speculation about how the Republicans might react to a Donald Trump victory by changing rules to give the nomination to someone like Mitt Romney. Kasich, he said, was an acceptable candidate. Rubio was not.
“He was forced on the Tea Party by the establishment Republicans before people knew who he was,” said Wallace, who was wearing a Gadsden flag pin. “He’s playing a conservative. He should go to Hollywood, because there’s a place in a movie for him.”
Kasich, by contrast, had a record and a very light touch. In Vermont, he listened quietly as a man asked a 180-second question about whether the government could shut down the sections of the Internet that distributed child pornography, then offered to take those concerns to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) – an endorser. He joked that a question about marijuana reminded him that he was really in Vermont, then reminisced about his own teenage errors.
“I smoked marijuana when I was a kid,” he said. "It’s not like I’m sitting here freaking out about it. It’s a different drug than it was 30 years ago – they tell me.”
Kasich’s mellow approach even extended to Trump, whom he absolutely refused to engage in an argument. On Sunday, Kasich began his remarks by saying Trump was wrong to waffle on whether he condemned the endorsements of white supremacists. On Monday, he stopped a reporter who said he “condemned” Trump.
" 'Condemn' is pretty harsh,” he said. “Of course, I disagree with him. I'm not in the business of condemnation of most people. Look, the guy came back and said he didn't hear his earpiece or whatever. I've said what I have to say about it. Look, everything is about name-calling, who's condemned — come on, we're running for president of the United States. Clearly in that interview, he should have condemned white supremacists. We all know that."
Kasich was even readier to reject the Republicans — hypothetical, as far as he could tell — who wanted him to give up his quest for the presidency.
"I have some people in Washington, but they're like me," he insisted. "They're not comfortable taking orders from people on K Street, or people living inside the Beltway. And ya know, I beat 'em 25 years ago, and I'm probably gonna beat 'em again."