CLEVELAND—In the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is 0 for everything — a string of losses that has left him trailing front-runner Donald Trump and far back in fourth place in the delegate count. Can a victory in his home state on Tuesday change all that?
The irrepressible Kasich believes it can. “I just had to be patient,” he said aboard his campaign bus en route to Cleveland on Saturday evening. He added, “I think [if] we win Tuesday, it’s a whole new ballgame.” Victory over Trump, he said, would show that “the emperor has no clothes.”
“When we beat him,” Kasich said, “the shield is broken.”
Late polls suggest that victory is far from assured. Kasich and Trump are in a close race here and a defeat would immediately end Kasich’s candidacy. But the fact that he is still standing in the GOP race is something of a surprise to many, including perhaps Kasich. “Nine out of 10 of the pundits never thought I’d even get to New Hampshire, let alone be competing in Ohio. Come on!” he exclaimed.
He has survived this long because of the desire of many Republicans to find an alternative to Trump and Kasich’s ability to say “wait for Ohio.” A Kasich victory on Tuesday, coupled with a loss by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in his home state, would leave the Ohio governor as the lone mainstream conservative in the race.
But even under the best of circumstances, his path to the nomination remains highly problematic. The road remains blocked not only by Trump but by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is currently running second in delegates. No one has won the nomination in the modern era following the path that Kasich is on.
Victory in Ohio is only the minimum down payment. Even if Kasich wins all 66 of Ohio’s delegates plus more from the four other states with contests that day, the numbers are daunting. After Tuesday, 1,463 of the 2,472 Republican delegates will have been chosen.
If Kasich were to win every one of the remaining delegates, improbable as that is, he would still be short of the 1,237 needed for nomination. His hope likely depends on winning a brutal floor fight with Trump and Cruz at the convention in July in Cleveland.
“If things go the way they’re expected to go on Tuesday, I think everybody’s going to be short,” he said. “Then we see what happens. And at that point, I think they start looking at who can do the job, who can win in the fall.”
Kasich and Trump have rarely tangled through the course of the campaign. Kasich has deliberately adopted an upbeat approach, emphasizing his willingness to work with Democrats and the need for finding ways to unite the country.
But in the aftermath of the violence that broke out in Chicago Friday night between Trump supporters and a group of protesters who sought to disrupt the New York billionaire’s rally, Kasich issued his toughest criticism to date of the GOP front-runner. He said the “seeds of division” planted by Trump “finally bore fruit and it was ugly.”
“I get to the point where I said I’ve kind of had enough, I’m going to have to talk, going to have to say some things,” he said in the interview. “Well I watched that and I didn’t like it, and this has been boiling in me for a while. . . . Right now I’m comfortable in what I’ve said. I’m comfortable in what I’ve said. But we’ll see.”
Trump, who held two events in Ohio on Saturday and one on Sunday, plans to return Monday night for a rally in Youngstown, a sign that he would like to put away Kasich just as he hopes to end Rubio’s campaign with a victory in Florida.
At his Ohio rallies, Trump painted a far more dire picture of Ohio’s economy than the governor’s upbeat message of economic revival. Trump tore into Kasich for his support for free trade and argued that the state “got lucky” on his watch through oil development but is on the precipice of economic calamity.
“Here’s the story: You got lucky. You struck oil,” Trump told a crowd of several thousand Saturday in Cleveland. “If you didn’t have oil, boy would you have problems right now. . . . Wait till you see what happens to Ohio in a little while. It’s going to be a big problem.”
Trump noted Kasich’s support for NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and said, “It is a disaster. It’s going to ruin your car industry – totally ruin it.” Trump noted that a Ford facility close to the rally site was shutting down and moving its operations to Mexico.
He accused Kasich of being an absentee governor while running for president. “He’s abandoned the state,” Trump said. “He lived in New Hampshire. He moved there. . . . He said he was going to win. I won in a landslide.”
Trump added, “Now he says he’s going to win Ohio. I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.”
Kasich brushed off Trump’s rhetoric as “smears . . . all politics, name-calling.” The facts, he said, are undeniable: Ohio’s economy and the state’s financial situation are far better today than when he was elected governor in 2010.
“Are we out of the woods? No, we’re not out of the woods,” he said. “But if you even go to Youngstown, Ohio, you will find we’re seeing good things happen in some of the toughest areas.”
Still, even in a rising economy, there are people who have been left behind. Many of those citizens are part of the Trump constituency. There are also Ohioans who simply see Trump as better equipped to change the political status quo.
Doug Boyle, 46, who owns a construction and landscaping company, attended Trump’s rally in Cleveland on Saturday. Despite being a Republican and supporting Kasich in past elections, Boyle said he would vote for Trump in Tuesday’s primary because Trump would be the greater change agent.
“Kasich’s a good guy,” Boyle said. “He’s done well for Ohio. I like what he says. But I’m voting for Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump’s run several businesses. He’s a highly successful man. I don’t think he’s Republican or Democrat. He’s Trump-ublican? I don’t know. We should come up with a term for it.”
Kasich sees himself as better equipped to deliver change than Trump — a politician with governing experience at the national and state level, but one who, in his own view, has never been loved by the political establishment. “I am not establishment — never have been establishment,” he said. “And I think that that is one of the keys to the ability to attract Trump voters . . . . I don’t believe that you take his people away by pounding on him. I think the only way you take them away is to offer a better vision and the reality that you can fix the things that they’re worked up about.”
Kasich said he’s determined to run the campaign to his own rhythm. “You know when things are really difficult, the greatest performers in the world slow everything down,” he said. “We’re not going to move to the drumbeat of what the pundits want to say because they haven’t been right about anything.”
As the bus rumbled toward Cleveland, Kasich asked his wife, Karen, how he was doing. “Fabulous,” she said. That got him thinking about life in the White House and whether their daughters would be okay leaving their friends behind to move to Washington.
“One step at a time,” Karen told him.
“Yeah,” the governor said. “One step at a time.”