John Kasich’s team hinged its entire strategy on New Hampshire, stringing together town-hall-style events while other candidates devoted much of their time and resources to Iowa.
MANCHESTER, N.H. —
Ohio Gov. John Kasich savored his come-from-behind, second-place finish in the New Hampshire Republican primary Tuesday night as if it were an outright victory.
But the road ahead for his campaign for the presidential nomination remains arduous and uphill.
Kasich, who finished near the bottom of the pack in Iowa with less than 2 percent of the vote, had staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire. And he got one, setting up what looks like an increasingly protracted Republican nominating contest, which now heads to South Carolina, where Kasich is not expected to fare as well.
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His team hinged its entire strategy on New Hampshire, quietly stringing together town-hall-style events in the state while other candidates devoted much of their time and resources to Iowa.
He avoided directly attacking his rivals, even as they bashed one another in ads and debates, and he won the endorsement of most of New Hampshire’s newspapers — and The Boston Globe — fueling a surge in the polls that could not have been better timed.
After Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey viciously mocked Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in Saturday’s debate, roiling the race in its final weekend, Kasich appeared to benefit most: Nearly one in four New Hampshire voters who made up their minds in the last few days went with Kasich, exit polls showed.
“Maybe, just maybe, we are turning the page on a dark part of American politics,” Kasich told hundreds of ebullient supporters, many of them volunteers from outside the state, at a primary-night party in Concord on Tuesday. “Because tonight, the light overcame the darkness of American campaigning.”
He received strong support from moderates and from people particularly worried about the nation’s economy, exit polls showed. He won 17 percent of the primary’s undeclared voters, more than any candidate other than Donald Trump, who won 36 percent.
Kasich cast himself as a “happy warrior” with an optimistic message: As the son of a mail carrier, who understands the concerns of middle-class Americans, he argues he is well-prepared to fix the nation’s economy.
John Weaver, Kasich’s top strategist, has a history of steering moderate candidates to victory in New Hampshire: He was one of the architects of Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus in 2000, and he helped Jon Huntsman Jr., former governor of Utah, finish third in 2012.
In an interview, Weaver volunteered that South Carolina, which holds the next Republican primary on Feb. 20, is not a “must-win” for Kasich.
The moderate messages on health care and immigration, among other issues, that helped Kasich draw support from centrist Republican and independent voters in New Hampshire is likely to alienate some of South Carolina’s more conservative base.
His expansion of Medicaid in Ohio, for example, is considered a betrayal by many conservatives. And while four in five New Hampshire voters who backed Kasich said they favored a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally, just 56 percent of all primary voters in New Hampshire shared that view.
Still, Weaver said that Kasich’s campaign would gain a burst of momentum that would sustain him until the Michigan primary, on March 8, which he called a “must-win” and the “gateway to the Midwest.”
“We’re organized in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, the Plains states, the Rocky Mountain States,” Weaver said.
He said Kasich’s team was adding staff members and had strong fundraising numbers in January, although he declined to say what those figures were. “We have a national campaign, but we were toiling in obscurity,” he said.
Kasich’s rivals were less convinced. “John Kasich has no chance to do well in the South Carolina primary,” said Tim Miller, a spokesman for Jeb Bush’s campaign.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that while Kasich was a “fine man,” he would have a difficult time in that state.
“He talks about closing military bases, and most people in South Carolina, we have a lot of military infrastructure and we need to draw up our military,” said Graham, who is supporting Bush.
Henry Barbour, a veteran Republican strategist based in Mississippi, commended Kasich’s second-place finish but noted that he had benefited from what Barbour called “a refreshing contrast with the rest of the field with his positive message to their food fight.”
“Oh, and by the way,” Barbour added, “he should buy Chris Christie a steak dinner for his hand in changing the entire momentum of the race in New Hampshire just three days before the primary.”