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The last candidate to make the prime-time stage made some of the biggest impressions at the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland on Thursday.
John Kasich barely made the cut for the main event in his home-state, but the Ohio governor got a boost from the friendly crowd and was considered by many to be among the stand-outs in the debate, earning raves from pundits for his folksy style and compassionate conservative message.
“He showed himself as a leader, not only of a party, but of a nation whose best days are ahead,” Bradley Blakeman, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote for The Hill. “He had vision, experience, was affable, genuine and showed leadership.”
Kasich has so far embraced the role of underdog, noting in a post-debate interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity that critics doubted he could make the debate stage, stick out among the big field of contenders or compete in fundraising.
“I’ve always been underestimated…and it’s a good thing,” Kasich said. “It will make life easier.”
He may not have that luxury going forward.
“The time for him sneaking up on people at these debates is over,” said Ed Lee, the senior director at the Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education at Emory University. “His performance was good enough that the other campaigns will be talking about what to do about him. Next time, the talk won’t be about him squeaking in, it will be about threat he poses to Bush and the other establishment candidates, because he outshined them all.”
Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf was already seeking to temper the buzz in a Friday interview with The Hill.
“Last night was a helpful step forward but one night does not make a campaign,” Schrimpf said.
Kasich’s campaign said that in the short-term, they’ll look to build on the debate momentum by ramping up his national media appearances. In addition to the Hannity interview, Kasich did an early-morning spot with CBS News on Friday, and he’ll hit the Sunday talk show circuit on Sunday.
From there, Kasich’s focus will return almost exclusively to New Hampshire, where polls show him making inroads. Kasich’s supporters believe his brand of moderate conservatism and down-to-earth appeal are a perfect fit for the first-in-the-nation primary voters.
“New Hampshire fits his style,” said Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for New Day for America, the pro-Kasich super-PAC. “Last night’s debate is great example of why he’s catching fire there. We believe that the traction he’s getting in New Hampshire will impact his standing in the national polls and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Kasich is headed back to the Granite State for a pair of town-hall events on Tuesday and Wednesday.
He already has several influential veterans of the New Hampshire scene on his team, including campaign manager John Weaver, who led Sen. John McCain’s successful run there in 2000, and former Sen. John E. Sununu, a well-respected figure in the state.
Last week, Kasich landed the endorsements of several other influential people in the state, including New Hampshire GOP leader Nancy Merrill, who co-chaired McCain’s campaigns in New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008. McCain won both times.
Kasich’s campaign has yet to spend on ads in the state, but they don’t need to.
New Day for America has already booked a staggering $4 million in TV ads for July and August. The group has also been pushing digital ads in the state, and says they’re in the process of building out their grassroots infrastructure there. A ground team with several operatives will be up and running in New Hampshire in weeks.
“It’s no secret what our strategy has been,” Wehrkamp said. “We’ve already been investing a lot of time and resources in New Hampshire and we’ll continue to do so.”
Republicans in the state say Kasich’s ads are drowning out the rest of the field in New Hampshire, as few others are spending this early.
“We’ve been sitting around the hotel room and one of those ads will come on,” said Schrimpf. “They’ve been really effective.”
A recent Gravis Marketing survey of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire showed Kasich surging into second place, trailing only Donald Trump.
Still, plenty of hurdles remain.
Like all of the candidates, Kasich will continue to face a challenge in getting his message out over Trump, who is far and away the frontrunner in the Granite State. Though Kasich was in second place in the Gravis poll, Trump led by more than two-to-one.
And Kasich still trails Jeb Bush and Scott Walker there, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls in New Hampshire. He’ll be competing directly with both men for support and resources.
Bush has outraised Kasich ten-fold, and remains the heavy favorite among many establishment-minded Republicans.
Following the Thursday debate, the former Florida governor left Cleveland and went directly to New Hampshire for a Friday town-hall event.
Kasich will also have to beat back challenges from a handful of other candidates with low polling numbers who similarly impressed at the first debate and will be hoping for a post-Cleveland bump.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina was the unanimous victor in the undercard debate on Thursday and is considered by many to be another sleeper candidate.
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is similarly staking his campaign on New Hampshire. He turned in a strong debate performance as well, reminding many Republicans of the combative and cool-under-pressure style that once made him a leading contender.
Christie has been camping out in New Hampshire. He’s conducted more than a dozen town-halls and his super-PAC is also spending in the state.
In addition, Kasich faces skepticism from some quarters that there’s enough room in the field for another moderate voice.
At the debate Thursday, Kasich fiercely defended his decision to expand Medicaid at the debate, and came off well in arguing that Republicans should show compassion to gay people, even if they disagree with same-sex-marriage.
But some Republicans believe he’s getting buzz because his message resonates more with the beltway crowd than with Republican primary voters.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce political analyst Scott Reed called him a “media darling,” although he acknowledged Kasich “has room to grow.”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said Kasich “may not have that immediate appeal to the base” but “he has that establishment appeal, and that’s the majority of primary voters in New Hampshire.”
“He needs to keep emphasizing his blue collar roots and explain how he’s a doer,” O’Connell said. “When he talks about he balanced the federal budget [as a congressman in the 1990s], that’s music to the ears of Republican primary voters.”