Ohio Gov. John Kasich seldom stands out for debate zingers or high-decibel confrontations with his rivals. His campaign failures and triumphs rarely spark breathless media accounts.
But after spending months in diners and Elks Clubs in New Hampshire, the low-profile Midwesterner boarded a plane to South Carolina before dawn Wednesday with a chance to win the mantle as the establishment’s best hope against Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.
His strong second-place finish in New Hampshire’s primary Tuesday means donors and voters elsewhere will size him up anew, or maybe for the first time – assessing whether his message of pragmatic, upbeat conservatism will resonate in a time of voter anger, and whether his plodding electoral strategy will hold up long enough to survive a national campaign.
Though few expect him to win South Carolina, which holds the next GOP primary on Feb. 20, he could benefit as his two main rivals from Florida – former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio – continue their fierce battle to remain viable long enough to reach the Florida primary next month.
“Kasich appeals to people who desperately want to identify themselves as Republicans but can’t bring themselves to do it with Donald Trump as the front-runner,” said Joel Sawyer, a GOP strategist in South Carolina who is not working for any of the candidates. “Maybe Kasich can have a good showing there.”
For now, the still-splintered and unstable nature of the competition benefits Trump, who leads the polls handily in South Carolina and solidified his status as the national front-runner after his resounding victory in New Hampshire. As long as multiple candidates remain in the primary, Trump’s support from 30% to 40% of the voters is enough to win every state easily.
But a one-on-one matchup is trickier, with nearly half of New Hampshire voters saying in an exit poll that they’d be dissatisfied with Trump as the party’s nominee. Even that number is not all bad, as both Rubio and Cruz drew higher disapproval from GOP voters.
Trump, in a Wednesday interview, resisted an opportunity to name who he thinks is his top challenger, insisting “they’re all accomplished people.”
“I wouldn’t want to pick one because they’re close enough and we’ll see what happens,” he told NBC News.
Rubio supporter Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, acknowledged Trump’s popularity. “When you look around the country, he’s done very well because the political environment today is like the wild, wild west and he’s a strong cowboy,” Scott said.
Exit polls showed two-thirds of New Hampshire voters agreed with Trump’s call to ban Muslim foreigners from entering the country, an issue that has separated him from the GOP establishment but endeared him to many of its voters.
To stay afloat after that, he’ll hope to win a handful of states on March 1, when voters in more than a dozen states, most of them in unfriendly Southern territory, head to the polls. Kasich’s strategist said he would hope to win a few of them – perhaps Massachusetts, Vermont, Tennessee or Virginia – before the race turns to Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, where he could finally begin winning enough delegates to pose a serious challenge.
Kasich urged patience. “Our campaign has just begun and we have a long way to go on the pathway to the nomination,” he said in an email to supporters.
In the meantime, Kasich will have to survive attacks from the right on his record, which includes an expansion of Medicaid in his state as part of President Obama’s healthcare law, support for both Common Core education standards and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally.
His brand of moderation sold relatively well in New Hampshire, which four years ago gave a similar share of the vote to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another candidate trying to appeal to moderates. Huntsman saw his campaign fizzle a few days after New Hampshire. Kasich will also have to fight off the notion that he is a retro candidate tied to the old establishment.
He appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday, where he vowed — notwithstanding his pledge to run a positive campaign — to fight back if attacked.
The nominating contest is likely to get nastier in South Carolina, which has a reputation for rough-and-tumble politics. The Cruz campaign has already begun attacking Trump as a faux populist. It has produced a cheeky online video featuring children playing with action figures of the billionaire and expects to run the ad on South Carolina television stations soon, according to a Cruz adviser who demanded anonymity to discuss strategy.
Cruz, who has meticulously cultivated a grass-roots army of arch-conservative and evangelical voters in the South, had hoped the field would have narrowed further in New Hampshire. But his campaign is now counting on shedding one or more establishment candidates in the coming weeks to create an eventual one-on-one showdown with Trump. During a campaign swing Wednesday through Myrtle Beach, S.C., Cruz attacked the celebrity candidate as “not conservative” and warned South Carolina to look for one who has “walked the walk.”
Cruz is polling in second place in South Carolina, and few expect anyone to beat Trump. “They’re really wanting change and they think they can get more change with Trump,” said Moye Graham, chairman of a local GOP committee in South Carolina, who has endorsed Rubio.
The toughest battle, once again, may be for third place. “It’s going to be a really ugly fight,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican operative in the state who is not aligned with any of the candidates.
Rubio, whose weekend debate performance subjected him to relentless mockery and helped sink his prospects in New Hampshire, promised he would rebound. “I know how to come from behind,” he said in an email to supporters.
Bush, who has gone back and forth in embracing his family name, is once again depending on it. Both his brother and father have done well in elections in South Carolina, a state with a strong presence of active and retired military. On Wednesday, Bush began airing a radio ad in South Carolina featuring George W. Bush touting Jeb’s strength during “troubled times.”
“We need a strong leader with experience, ideas and resolve,” the former president says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Jeb Bush will be a great commander in chief for our military.”
But even as Bush fared well enough in New Hampshire to survive, his backers have burned through money. His super PAC has spent $70 million on advertising so far and has postponed some of its advertising in several states to focus on South Carolina. All that money has resulted in three or four delegates for Bush’s campaign, depending on who is doing the math.
It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination.
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report from New Hampshire.