MORAINE, Ohio — John Kasich’s presidential hopes rest on Ohio, and his chances to win here in Tuesday’s Republican primary rest on an economic pitch that is the opposite of what Ohioans are used to hearing.
Presidential candidates usually promise to revive Ohio’s once-powerhouse economy. Kasich, the state’s governor since 2011, is taking credit for an economic boom here and promising to make Ohio’s economy the model for the nation. He is bragging about the state’s factories, its job growth, even its wages, betting that voters’ rosy view of his economic record will deliver him a win over Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and the forces of “Make America Great Again.”
“Ohio has come back,” Kasich told 1,000 supporters here Friday evening. A moment later, he added: “What I want to do is take the formula that works in Ohio and take it to Washington.”
A recent Fox News poll of the state shows nearly 8 in 10 Republicans approve of Kasich’s performance as governor. He led Trump in that poll by five percentage points. Other recent polls have shown Trump, who also campaigned in the state Saturday, with a slight lead.
Kasich has said he will drop out of the race if he can’t win here Tuesday. He remains a long shot for the nomination even if he wins, sitting, as he does, so far behind Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) in delegates won.
But Kasich is convinced that a victory Tuesday will invigorate his candidacy and launch him to victories in other states, including neighboring Pennsylvania, which votes next month.
“I’m going to win Ohio,” he told reporters Saturday morning before addressing a pancake breakfast in the Cincinnati suburbs. “And don’t be surprised if I go to the convention with the largest number of delegates.”
In last-ditch rallies across the state, Kasich is pinning his victory hopes on a sunshiny economic message. He casts himself as a turnaround agent who took over a foundering state after winning the governor’s office in 2010. In another media huddle later in the day Saturday, the governor bragged that Ohioans are “starting to get our mojo back.”
Ohio’s job losses from the Great Recession bottomed out in early 2010, and the state had begun adding jobs when Kasich took office at the beginning of 2011. In his five years as governor, the state has added nearly 400,000 jobs, according to the Labor Department, which works out to a job-creation rate slower than the nation as a whole.
But its unemployment rate has fallen to 4.7 percent — slightly better than the national rate. And Ohio’s median household income increased by 5.6 percent after adjusting for inflation from 2011 to 2014, the last year federal statistics are available. That compares with 2 percent for the nation overall.
In a Washington Post statistical analysis last year of the economic records of several current or former governors who were running for president, Ohio performed better than expected on the unemployment rate and per-capita income.
The analysis compared the governors’ home states with similar states on a variety of economic measures; under Kasich, Ohio did not underperform on any measure. Only one governor-candidate scored better: former Texas governor Rick Perry, who quit the Republican race last year.
Campaigning across Ohio this weekend, Kasich cast his record in decidedly local terms. In Moraine, outside of Dayton, he boasted of the $500 million invested and 1,000 jobs created in his state by a Chinese company, Fuyao Glass, which hosted the town hall Friday.
He also recounted that story Saturday in Heath, outside of Columbus, in an indirect slap at Trump, who has denounced America’s trading relationship with China as a job killer. “China’s coming here,” Kasich said, to loud applause. “We’re not going there.”
The Health town hall was held on the floor of an Xperion factory, a supplier in the compressed-natural-gas industry that opened during Kasich’s first term. From the beginning, it put the state economy front and center. “Things are terrifically better here in Ohio,” said Clarence Mingo, the Franklin County auditor who helped warm up the crowd for Kasich. “But in other parts of the nation, people are struggling.”
Kasich closed the event by asking attendees to consider him one more time on the ballot — and to make their presidential vote “reflect what we’ve been able to accomplish in Ohio together.”
It was a sharp contrast to the tone Trump struck in rallies in Dayton and Cleveland on Saturday, when he hit Kasich for his support of trade deals, including a vote in the House to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement under President Bill Clinton and his backing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration.
Trump called Kasich weak and faulted him for his pre-governorship job working at Lehman Brothers. He said Ohio’s coal industry is threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency and its steel industry is also endangered.
“Let me talk about your governor,” Trump taunted in Dayton. “Do you mind? For about two minutes, okay. I mean, it’s a boring subject, but we’ll talk about him anyway.”
Ohio Democrats say Kasich has been too chipper about the state’s economy and that his budgets have shortchanged urban workers by reducing state aid to cities. Former governor Ted Strickland, whom Kasich defeated in 2010 and who is running for the U.S. Senate, said in a statement: “Economists might say things are getting better, but in Ohio working people are feeling squeezed, while it seems like the rich and well-connected are just getting richer.”
Kasich’s rallies this weekend were largely filled with Republicans who praised his economic record and cited it as a reason they support him for president.
“I think people feel better in Ohio than they did before, in terms of job opportunities,” said Lisa Prestanski, a 41-year-old drugstore employee who saw Kasich speak at the pancake breakfast Saturday. She said she planned to vote for him Tuesday.
The jobs-themed message did not resonate for everyone in the crowds, though. Several questioners were more interested in Kasich’s plans for Social Security. Dan Furbee, a 24-year-old Ohio State University student, wanted to hear about higher education policy.
“I don’t know too much about the economy,” Furbee said. But, he added, he hoped it would be good in Columbus this year. He is about to graduate, he said, and there’s nowhere he would rather look for a job.
Dan Balz and Jose DelReal in Dayton, Ohio, and David Weigel in Washington contributed to this report.