It’s no longer Mr. Nice Guy for John Kasich, at least by his relentlessly sunny standard during this campaign.
Shortly after kicking off one of his typical town hall meetings here, the Ohio governor launched into a criticism of what he called Donald Trump’s “absurd” plan to ban Muslim immigration. Then he flew east to tee off on the Republican front-runner on Trump’s home turf of Manhattan.
“He is really not prepared to be president of the United States,” Kasich said Thursday.
In a campaign marred by mudslinging, Kasich’s criticisms were mild, but they nonetheless represent an ongoing shift for a candidate who has struggled to gain traction with Republican voters and whose string of losses leave open the question of why he persists in running.
“I’m still here,” he said this week. “Maybe you’ll warm up to me.”
Kasich, who’s won nowhere except his home state, appears all but assured to lose Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday and trails in polls in New York and Pennsylvania, which vote in late April.
He may have survived longer than 14 other Republican candidates, but in a year where the electorate has cried out with anger, his prescription of warmth and moderation hasn’t caught on.
“He has an image of being somewhat more moderate, and the type of campaign he’s run has reinforced that image,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor. “I don’t think there’s enough of these moderate Republican voters left.”
Here in Wisconsin, like much of the rest of the country, voters have become increasingly polarized after years of open political warfare between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and public-sector unions.
“They kind of like the fact that there was a fight,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant. “They’re much more inflected with the current sensibility of a combat-orientated Republican party.”
Kasich is more likely to talk about the need to comfort the lonely than rail against political opponents, either within his party or among Democrats. He speaks often about trying to bridge gaps at a time when Republican primary voters seem less interested in reconciliation than venting their frustrations.
John Macy, chairman of the Republican Party in Waukesha County, suggested a simple explanation for why Kasich hadn’t gained more support.
“Everybody likes a winner, and he hasn’t won a state” besides Ohio, he said.
Kasich has won even fewer delegates than Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who dropped out of the race after losing his home state March 15. The latest survey from the highly regarded Marquette Law School poll shows Kasich on track to finish last of the three remaining Republican candidates in Wisconsin.
Despite poor polling, Kasich has insisted that he will perform better in late-April primaries in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, where more moderate voters may be skeptical of Cruz’s hard-line ideology and Trump’s unpredictability.
But he’s already fallen short in potentially favorable places like Michigan and Massachusetts, and at this point, it’s mathematically impossible for Kasich to secure the Republican nomination during the primaries. He’s staked his chances on the hope that no other candidate will secure a majority of delegates before the convention in July.
During a contested convention, which Republicans haven’t seen for more than six decades, delegates are bound by the voting results from their states only on the first ballot. After that, they are freer to choose which candidate to support.
At that point, Kasich told reporters, “People are going to actually want to ask, ‘Who do you think can beat Hillary Clinton?’”
He bests Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, in polls of hypothetical general election matchups, while Trump and Cruz fall short, although such surveys at this stage in a race have almost no predictive power.
Kasich says he’s not just fighting for his own candidacy, but for his party’s chances in November. Without him at the top of the ticket, he said, Republicans could face steep losses in lower-level races.
“I find myself in the strange position in some ways of being the stalwart of the Republican Party, to make sure we don’t lose the Senate and [suffer] major losses in the House,” he said.
For Republican voters who have latched onto Kasich as the only reasonable candidate left in the race, his failures have been frustrating and confusing.
“I don’t understand it,” said Ted Setum, a 58-year-old attorney from Vernon, a small town on the outskirts of the Milwaukee area. “The American people say they don’t like negative campaigning, but that’s all they’ve gotten.”
“I hit my mute button four times” during one of the televised debates, he said. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Kasich’s supporters have been turned off by Trump’s rhetoric while bemoaning his constant media attention.
“Trump is too controversial,” said Ed Cooper, 82. “He’s got to think before he talks. Maybe because he talks before he thinks is why he’s in the paper all the time.”
Even as Kasich has ramped up his criticisms of Trump, he’s still campaigning with the type of humor that makes young children roll their eyes at the parents. On Wednesday he declined frozen custard during a campaign stop in a Milwaukee suburb because, he said, “I have a young, beautiful, smart wife. I have to stay fit.”
He bantered with a customer about golf swings, demonstrating how players should roll their wrists. A woman praised his stance on immigrants who are in the country illegally -- Kasich wants a path to legalization instead of deportations -- by saying he’s treating them “like human beings.”
Kasich responded, “How should we treat them, like widgets?”
His campaign had emailed supporters to let them know Kasich would be stopping at the restaurant, and several showed up to thank him for running a more positive campaign than his opponents.
Bennett Whitnell, 29, said Kasich should stick it out until the convention.
“Until somebody wins the nomination, you haven’t lost the nomination,” he said.
Whitnell added, “I’m with him until the wheels fall off.”