Stagnant Kasich banks on NH
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Ohio Gov. John Kasich is struggling to break out from the pack of Republican presidential candidates as outsiders outflank him and a rising Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam Liberal super PAC launches browser extension replacing 'Mitch McConnell' with 'Moscow Mitch' Trump faces difficult balancing act with reelection campaign MORE blocks his lane.

The Ohio governor was once seen as a dark horse for the establishment crown — a Jeb Bush but without the family baggage.

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While the former Florida governor is fighting a slide in recent polls, Kasich is struggling to pass him and stave off Rubio’s surge in New Hampshire, where Kasich has his best shot at capturing the early momentum needed to propel him through the primaries.

“He’s had a pretty rough time,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and writer for The Hill’s Contributors blog.

“The path for Kasich was for him to politically kill Jeb in New Hampshire … but now if you finish ahead of Jeb in New Hampshire, that might not mean that much.”

Kasich’s performance in the third GOP debate of the 2016 cycle mirrored the path of his presidential bid: He flew out of the gate, earning broad praise when he cast aside the first question about his weaknesses and launched into a scathing attack on rivals.

“Great question, but I want to tell you, my great concern is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job,” Kasich said, before laying into real estate mogul Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on fiscal policy and immigration.

But while Kasich spoke for more time than all but two other candidates on the stage last Wednesday, he spent much of the debate out of the spotlight.

That’s not the first time Kasich has come out strong and then lost his edge.

He jumped into the Republican presidential race in late July, just two weeks before the first GOP debate, and was able to parlay momentum into a quick ascent onto the main debate stage. That was something both former Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) were unable to do despite both having run for the White House before.

But the initial bump never materialized into a sustained rise, and he continues to hang near the bottom of the top 10 nationally, as well as in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.

New Hampshire is another matter.

There, he is in fifth place, just 0.2 percentage points behind Bush, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polling. That’s still more than 20 points behind Trump but well in the mix with the rest of the top five.

Kasich supporters are hopeful.

Despite focus on Rubio’s clash with Bush and criticism of CNBC’s handling of the debate, one Kasich supporter said he thinks the governor “is teed up really well for the next debate,” scheduled for Nov. 10.

Kasich allies hope that boosts his numbers in New Hampshire, where the campaign and Kasich’s allied super-PAC are pushing hard.

New Day for America, the super-PAC, has already spent $6.5 million on Granite State television ads and has reserved an additional $5.5 million, according to Matt David, chief strategist for New Day.

He added that because Kasich jumped in relatively late and has lower name recognition than other candidates, the group wants to focus on biographical ads instead of contrasts between the governor and his rivals.

“We’ve always looked at NH as a state where we have to exceed expectations,” he said.

“When it comes to mapping out our strategy, we have a specific emphasis on making sure we have the resources to fully fund that effort.”

Still, Kasich has to deal with the rise of Rubio, who has 10 percent support in the Granite State, about 2 points higher than Kasich’s in the RealClearPolitics average.

Rubio’s numbers more than doubled in a post-debate poll released on Monday, coming in just 3 points behind second-place Carson. 

Both Kasich and Bush have accused Rubio of inexperience, with Bush doubling down on those attacks over the past few weeks.

Supporters note that Kasich’s moderate brand of conservatism fits well within the state, attracting a strong group of supporters from different factions of the party, as well as political independents who are eligible to vote in the primary.

And they believe that voters will take a more serious look closer to election day, which could bode poorly for Trump and Carson. 

Bruce Berke, a Kasich adviser who also served as his New Hampshire state director during his 1999 presidential bid, called the establishment lane “up for grabs” in the Granite State while noting that the governor “certainly needs to emerge near the top in that lane.”

“People who are looking for a common sense, reasonable approach to the many challenges we face in this country and hearing John Kasich share his many views on that, that’s going to be one sector of the vote that we pursue,” he said. “He can be infectious.”

But ultimately, he’ll need to tamp down Rubio’s rise and box out Bush. And that isn’t completely in Kasich’s control.

“Another scenario would be where we need a murder-suicide between Jeb and Rubio, which is a very realistic possibility,” the Kasich supporter said. An enduring scrap between the two candidates could end up hurting them both at the polls.

“[A politician] hates to be in a position in an election where you aren’t holding all the cards, but at least there are good odds.”