Facing an uphill climb, Kasich targets Michigan primary

Detroit News wire services

Mount Pleasant, S.C. — After a second-place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday, Republican presidential contender John Kasich is setting his sights on next month’s Michigan primary.

A senior campaign strategist said Wednesday that Michigan is seen as a vital must-win state that will see the same sort of intense focus that Kasich applied to New Hampshire.

The strategist, spoke on condition he not be identified, described Kasich’s hoped-for path forward, which amounts to a last-man-standing strategy as others fall away, starting with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the next-to-vote South Carolina contest.

Kasich doesn’t hope to win South Carolina, the strategist said, but simply finish strongly enough to survive if Rubio or Bush — or both — drop out.

The Ohio governor plans to break from South Carolina politicking Monday to visit Michigan, which votes March 8. He sees the potential to do well in the Great Lakes State, and he has a home-court advantage when Ohio votes March 15. He plans three town hall events Monday and Tuesday — with two events in Metro Detroit and the other in west Michigan.

Kasich spent time and money winning over New Hampshire voters, but he came to South Carolina with a short supply of both.

“You don’t know me,” Kasich told people in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston. “So I guess I’ve got to go back to the beginning.”

Kasich finished well behind Donald Trump in New Hampshire, but well ahead of others. That reflected Kasich’s singular focus on the state.

In a move that might help him with conservatives in South Carolina, he is expected to sign a bill stripping government money from Planned Parenthood. But his campaign — which has far less cash than any of his closest competitors — has spent nothing on advertising in the state and the outside groups backing him have put out barely anything. The South Carolina GOP primary is Feb. 20.

That compares with the many millions that Bush, Rubio and Ted Cruz, along with their allies, invested in TV and radio commercials. In recent days, a super PAC boosting Bush put an additional $1.7 million into its South Carolina ad plan. Even Trump, a master of free publicity, is spending $1.2 million on paid ads.

South Carolina is not Kasich’s only blind spot.

His all-in New Hampshire strategy also meant little attention to Nevada, the state that votes after South Carolina, or to most of the dozen states that hold March 1 contests.

“We don’t have to win everything,” said Kasich’s senior adviser, Tom Rath. “What we need to do is win enough to keep us alive, which I think we absolutely can do.”

Kasich, who like his rivals has several days of back-to-back South Carolina events planned, has spent little time in the state and has fewer employees and volunteers compared with the others.

His presence hasn’t been felt — something he acknowledged at campaign stops on Wednesday as he sprinkled biographical details such as his father’s career as a postman into his speeches.

“He can get in the game, but he’s got to move fast,” said Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committee member for South Carolina.

Kasich must act quickly to convert his New Hampshire win into a cash wave. His $2.5 million in the bank at the beginning of the year was one-third as much as Bush had and one-quarter of Rubio’s resources.

“This race is about to get very expensive,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Kasich strategist John Weaver said Tuesday was the campaign’s best fundraising night, but he declined to share numbers.

Rath, the Kasich adviser, said: “We have a lot of people who have been promising money if we perform.” Similarly, an outside group helping Kasich held a donor call Wednesday. Last month, six of Kasich’s biggest boosters gave the super PAC, New Day for America, $4 million.

As Kasich tries to get better known nationally, his rivals are eager to paint an unflattering picture of him.

Already, Bush’s super political action committee, Right to Rise, has spent more than $100,000 on mailings to South Carolinians that cast Kasich in a poor light, filings with the Federal Election Commission show.

Rubio also said he’s ready to engage more in direct contrasts with his opponents.

“Millions are going to get spent against me but I’m going to do my best to stay positive, to talk about my record,” Kasich said at a pizza parlor in Mount Pleasant.

His super PAC also stands ready to fight.

Matt David, a senior strategist with New Day for America, said the super PAC plans to counterpunch any Bush assaults on Kasich’s record.

“We will respond aggressively to his flailing campaign,” he said.

Kasich last campaigned in Michigan in late November, touring a business incubator in Macomb County and holding a fundraiser in downtown Detroit.

His next Michigan trip will start Monday in Ottawa County with Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive; former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland; Grand Valley State University College Republicans; and the county Republican Party.

Doors to the Grand Valley State University’s Kirkhof Center will open at 9:30 a.m. The program begins at 10 a.m.

Later that day, Kasich will participate in a town hall at the headquarters of the Macomb County Republican Party in Utica. Doors will open at 6 p.m. with the program starting at 6:30.

Kasich will wrap up his Michigan visit with an Oakland/Wayne County Town Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at the Livonia GOP Field Office in Livonia. Doors will open at 9:30 a.m. with remarks beginning at 10 a.m.

Detroit News Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.