HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Nine hundred miles away, Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) was under attack. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who leads decisively in the polls for Tuesday's Wisconsin primary but risks losing some delegates to Kasich, has papered the Milwaukee suburbs with direct mail and is now airing his first direct attack ad aimed at the Ohio governor.
After a town hall at Hofstra University, which Kasich occasionally described as a "love-fest," he expressed amazement that Republican voters might fall for this. Then he swung directly at Cruz.
"They've spent, I dunno, a million dollars smearing me — Ted, Senator Ted, the smear artist," Kasich told reporters as the town hall cleared out. "They're attacking me in Wisconsin. For a guy that's not doing very well, they sure are spending a lot of money trying to knock me out. But they're not gonna be successful."
Kasich did not address the substance of the ad, which re-animated an attack from the 2014 Ohio gubernatorial campaign about tax credits awarded to a company that once employed Kasich. But the ad's existence is read as evidence that Kasich has remained competitive in at least a few of Wisconsin's eight congressional districts, raising the prospect that he could take their winner-take-all delegate haul or that he could clear a path for Donald Trump to take them.
"We have one guy with no experience and the other guy whose experience amounts to shutting down the government and calling the majority leader a liar," said Kasich, referring to Trump and Cruz. "How do we go to a convention and we pick somebody that can't beat Hillary? I'm not gonna be a pincushion. I'm not gonna be a marshmallow."
Kasich's frustration with coverage of the race flashed a few times in the town hall. Several voters prefaced their questions by begging Kasich to stay in the race. He said he would, then remarked on how 38 percent of Wisconsin voters could not identify him, costing him votes.
"I’m up 14 points on Hillary in Wisconsin, and I’m going to lose in Wisconsin," said Kasich, referring to the primary vote Tuesday. "It's unbelievable.”
Later, while reminding voters that the New York Times had endorsed him, Kasich turned to a spokesman to check how many other newspapers had done the same.
"I love ‘em," Kasich said, "but have they moved the needle? No!"
A question that came up repeatedly, and that Kasich could not definitively answer, was how to overcome Trump's and Cruz's fidelity to a troublesome RNC rule. At the 2012 convention, after fending off challenges from supporters of then-Texas congressman Ron Paul, allies of Mitt Romney at the RNC required that candidates win majorities of delegates in eight states to be nominated. Cruz has cited rule 40b to brand Kasich a spoiler, a fantasy candidate who cannot add seven states to his total so far of one.
"If you lose 49 states, you can't be the Republican nominee," Cruz said at an event in Wisconsin today, while Kasich was speaking back east.
Pressed by reporters on Long Island, Kasich would not say that he could win another state.
"We have to win delegates," he said. "You know, Abraham Lincoln didn’t do all that hot. I think he turned out president. And I don’t want to go all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, but we’ve had 10 contested Republican conventions where only three times did the leader get picked. I mean, when we get to the convention, they’re going to wonder, who can beat Hillary, which I consistently do, and they do not, and that’s why they are starting to trash me."