In the chaos that is the New Hampshire Republican primary, one candidate is steering clear of the bumper-car madness and quietly creeping ahead of his rivals.
John Kasich places second in New Hampshire in five out of six recent polls, behind longstanding front-runner Donald Trump. In three of them he's tied for second—with three different candidates: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. His rise over the past few weeks is palpable and reflected in the RealClearPolitics average of Granite State polls, which confirms his second-place standing there.
“I think Kasich could be the guy,” said John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist and former top spokesman for House Republican leadership. “If he comes in second in New Hampshire he could be the big comeback story. He might be the establishment guy.”
The other three establishment-friendly Republicans—Rubio, Bush, and Chris Christie—are all competitive for second place in the Granite State but have formed a circular firing squad. Rubio and his super-PAC are simultaneous slinging arrows at Christie (for being too liberal) and Cruz (for being an inconsistent conservative), while fending off a wave of attacks from Bush (for changing his position on “amnesty”) and Christie (for being too young and unprepared).
“If you avoid the circular firing squad, you're the only one left standing,” Feehery said. “I think there's a bunch of different gun battles going on, and right now no one's shooting at Kasich because they thought he was already dead.”
Staying off attack mode has been a conscious decision, Kasich's top strategist said.
“When the other candidates are offering criticisms and darkness and gloom—no optimism about the future, no real solutions to the problems that real people care about—he's doing the exact opposite, and he's connecting with voters,” John Weaver, Kasich's chief strategist, told Bloomberg Politics. “In a multi-field race if you're playing whack-a-mole and if Harry hits Sam, how do we know that Sam's votes are going to go to Harry and not Dick? So, we don't get involved in that.”
Weaver also fired a warning shot at the Republican field.
“Now, if somebody attacks us, we're going to rain hell on their head. But as far as they leave us alone, we're going to move forward,” he said.
The cantankerous Ohio governor, well-liked by moderate Republicans but detested by the ascendant conservative base, stuck to his positive and pragmatic message at a town hall Wednesday evening in Gilford, New Hampshire.
“You know, they say everybody's angry. I don't think everybody's angry. We're not angry people,” he told the crowd. “We just want some solutions and we want to believe the people telling us we're gonna get solutions that they're for real.”
The approach appears to be paying off in New Hampshire. Kasich has recently picked up endorsements from the Nashua Telegraph and Portsmouth Herald as he barnstorms churches, businesses, and community centers this week. His goal is a strong finish in the Granite State that makes him the clear establishment favorite and gives him the resources to compete for the delegate-rich blue and purple states down the road, such as Michigan and his home state of Ohio, where he's popular.
“I think they all should be running against Hillary [Clinton], not each other,” said James B. Cahill of Moultonboro, New Hampshire, who intends to vote for Kasich. “You don't get anywhere throwing stones at each other, and it's one of the reasons he's rising, I believe.”
More troubling for Kasich, however, is what happens after New Hampshire. Even if the governor and former chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee places comfortably ahead of his establishment rivals and clears the center-right lane, his obstacles are daunting. He's a misfit for the angry, populist mood of the conservative base. He's stuck at 2 or 3 percent in national polls and isn't competitive in other early states. Just 21 percent of Republican voters across the country view Kasich favorably, while 28 percent view him unfavorably, according to a Monmouth survey released Wednesday.
Some conservative commentators bash Kasich as a liberal in a Republican's clothing. He's unapologetic about his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare in Ohio, and uses welcoming rhetoric toward gays and lesbians. Weaver, Kasich's chief strategist, is a polarizing figure within the GOP for his sharp criticism of the far right.
In an interview, Weaver couldn't resist taking some swipes at Kasich's rivals, saying that he's not pandering like they are. “Chris Christie has to pander because his record in New Jersey is so abysmal,” he said. “And Senator Rubio is one of those rare talents that we rarely see in public life, but when the issue gets tough, he runs like a scalded ape. [Kasich has] been through the fire. He's not pandered, he's not wavered, he's not changed one position.”
The questions asked at Kasich's Wednesday rally would only fuel the right's skepticism of his ideological roots. One man said he fell on hard times and asked Kasich if he'd support raising the minimum wage (the answer was no). A woman asked how he'd ensure equal pay for women. Another man asked Kasich how he'd protect the health care safety net, saying that it saves lives and that simply rescinding Affordable Care Act coverage “becomes a larger threat to the American public than ISIS is.” (The governor gave nuanced answers to the latter two questions.)
Kasich campaigned with a calm, jovial attitude that contrasts with the eagerness that some of his rivals display. One thing that set him apart is that he openly contemplates losing—and he's sounds quite all right with it. “If you lose an election, so what?” Kasich said. “If I lose this election, if I don't do well here, life's gonna go on.”