Kasich hopes for surge in NH to propel campaign forward

Kasich hopes for surge in NH to propel campaign forward
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Presidential candidate John Kasich couldn't have picked a better time to rise in the polls in New Hampshire, where voters will cast their ballots in less than three weeks.

After spending months in the middle of the pack, Kasich is now on top of a crowded field of moderate Republicans who know they can’t beat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRed states find there’s no free pass on Medicaid changes from Trump Trump meets with Moon in crucial moment for Korea summit The Memo: Trump flirts with constitutional crisis MORE but who believe a strong second place finish will propel them in states that follow the first-in-the nation primary.

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“The separation between [Kasich] and other [establishment candidates] is more important than the separation than between [Kasich] and Trump,” Dean Spiliotes, a Civic Scholar at Southern New Hampshire University and founder of the political blog, NHPoliticalCapital.com.

“He doesn’t have to win, but he has got to be a strong second.”

The Feb. 9 primaries in New Hampshire are critical for the establishment candidates because of the state’s more moderate electorate but also because they can be a springboard in a GOP race that could last several months.

They come eight days after the Feb.1 caucuses in Iowa, where Trump and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE (Texas) are favorites, and weeks before South Carolina and Nevada.

A second-place showing for Kasich was not even on the table until earlier this month, when the Ohio governor broke double-digit support in the RealClearPolitics index of New Hampshire polls for the first time since late September.

Then, this week, after mostly languishing between fourth and seventh place for several months, Kasich passed the higher-profile Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Kaepernick deserves to be in the NFL Congress — when considering women’s health, don’t forget about lung cancer Anti-Maduro Venezuelans not unlike anti-Castro Cubans of yore MORE (Fla.) and Cruz, reaching second place in the RealClearPolitics index.

Still, in a crowded where five candidates are in a bottleneck for the moderate establishment vote, just 5.2 points separates Kasich, Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Kasich’s recent rise comes on the back of a string of high-profile endorsements from local activists and powerhouses, including former Sen. John Sununu (R), former chair of the state Republican Party Fergus Cullen and local activist Ruth Griffin, a longtime family friend of the Bushes who chaired George W. Bush's successful steering committee there in 2000.

He has adopted a more optimistic message that he hopes will stand out from the doom-and-gloom campaign rhetoric offered by other candidates and has leaned on his experience in Congress while his rivals try to shed any establishment connection.

Rivals have increasingly identified the 63-year-old as a potential spoiler in the state, pushing back on his self-described “prince of light and hope” message. Christie instead likened Kasich to “Satan,” while the pro-Bush Right to Rise began airing a Jeopardy-themed spot Thursday focused on ObamaCare, defense cuts and spending.

Some strategists are skeptical of how long Kasich can stay in the race if he doesn’t have a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire. And even if he did have that kind of showing, it’s unclear how it would translate into momentum in other states where voters are traditionally more conservative.

Kasich's rise has been accompanied by a message that could see cross-over voting. Ryan Williams, a veteran of Mitt Romney's campaign and a Bush backer, said that he believes Kasich is openly pursuing independents by "staking out some liberal positions."

"He's gone about as far left as any Republican running in the field," Williams said, pointing to Kasich's recent remarks about it not being realistic to lower individual taxes as an example.

Kasich touting his record in Congress seems calculated at attracting undeclared voters, who can vote for candidates in either party in the New Hampshire primaries and have warmed in polling to himself and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersClinton backs Georgia governor hopeful on eve of primary The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Frenzy over Kennedy retirement rumors | Trump challenges DOJ Bernie Sanders announces Senate reelection bid MORE (I-Vt.).

"It's ironic but true: he is competing with Sanders for independent voters," Williams said of Kasich.

Fergus Cullen, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party who endorsed Kasich this week, didn’t think the governor’s success would necessarily come at the expense of Rubio, Bush or Christie.

“One of the mainstream conservatives will assert themselves as the candidate who mainstream conservatives and donors can rally around,” Cullen said in an interview with The Hill. And while Cullen hopes Kasich will be that candidate, he said it’s realistic to think any of the four main establishment hopefuls could emerge as the party favorite.

He pointed to Cruz as an example of a candidate he believes doesn’t have staying power in the general election – Cruz has been battling with Trump and Rubio for the support of the party's base, but has kept his sights on the primary compared with a potential matchup against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton backs Georgia governor hopeful on eve of primary Pressure rising on GOP after Trump–DOJ fight’s latest turn Press: Why Trump should thank FBI MORE or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Democrats.

“Ted Cruz only won one election in a red state,” Cullen said about Cruz’s ability to successfully push a conservative agenda. 

Cruz served as solicitor general in Texas, an appointed position and except for his Senate race, has never run in any other elections state or national. 

New Hampshire is generally key to winning the nomination: Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Pompeo lays out new Iran terms | Pentagon hints at more aggressive posture against Iran | House, Senate move on defense bill Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Sarah Sanders: ‘Democrats are losing their war against women in the Trump administration’ MORE (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the eventual nominees in 2008 and 2012, both won there. Still, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who finished fifth there in 2012, later picked up Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota to be the GOP runner-up.

When asked whether Kasich has staying power if he doesn’t win in New Hampshire, Cullen pointed to former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMaybe a Democratic mayor should be president Trump, taxpayers want Title X funding protected from abortion clinics President Trump’s historic rescissions package is a welcome step to cut wasteful spending MORE’s loss in 11 of the first 12 primaries in 1992 (including not competing in one) before he eventually won the nomination and the White House.

If Kasich does have a strong showing in the first-in-the-nation primaries, his White House hopes will depend on piggyback support going forward.

The big question remains whether that support would be there for him.