Analysis: Kasich builds momentum before Ohio

Nolan Finley and Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The make-or-break mark for the Republican presidential nominating race is pushed back another week, after Michigan failed to give the contest clarity.

Donald Trump held off an all-out effort by the GOP establishment to derail his juggernaut, raising serious questions about whether any amount of opposition spending can stop him.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich finally did well enough to boost his claim of being a potential Trump stopper.

The race now goes Ohio, which votes Tuesday, along with another large Midwestern state, Illinois. Any momentum Kasich picked up in Michigan must be coupled with a victory in Ohio and perhaps Illinois to keep his campaign alive.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s performance casts doubt on his ability to appeal to voters outside the South. As Trump said in his lengthy prime-time victory speech, Cruz keeps claiming to be the only candidate who can beat Trump, but he rarely does. Trump picked up Mississippi on Tuesday night as well, a state with a large evangelical electorate that might have belonged to Cruz.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who looked to be well out of the race in Michigan, returns home as well. Florida votes Tuesday, and Rubio, like Kasich, has to win his home state. But while Kasich is running neck-and-neck with Trump in Ohio, the billionaire is well ahead of Rubio in Florida, according to polls. Only a win will save his campaign.

From here on out, there’s no more pretending that silver, bronze or an honorable mention ribbon are the new gold.

While Michigan awarded its delegates proportionately based on the vote totals, the upcoming states are winner-take-all. Mount a strong campaign as Kasich did in Michigan and manage to finish just a few points behind the winner? Too bad, so sad. Only No. 1 reaps the reward.

“The story line in Michigan is who won second,” says Saul Anuzis, a former state party chairman working for the Rubio campaign. “But now, the primary format makes stopping Trump very tough. If on March 15 he wins Ohio and Florida, I don’t know how you do it, to tell the truth.”

Trump’s opponents have to start posting some Ws.

Rubio may get a boost in Florida from a $10 million anti-Trump ad buy in the state funded by political action committees formed by the Republican establishment to derail the front-runner. In Michigan, some of the anti-Trump dollars went to boost Kasich, and it seems to have paid off.

“Absolutely, it’s progress,” says Michigan native Katie Packer, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012 and head of a stop Trump PAC. “I expected Michigan to be more susceptible to Trump’s message. No state has struggled more than Michigan. But the promise of Trump’s campaign is starting to come undone.”

That may be wishful thinking. Trump took more than half the vote in Mississippi on Tuesday night. And look at the polling in the upcoming states. In Illinois, Trump is up by 10 points. In Florida, his margin over Rubio is 16 points. In New York, he holds a 27 point lead. Only Ohio truly looks competitive.

Increasingly, the hopes of the GOP power brokers rest on denying Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs to seal the nomination before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.

That’s why Kasich will be getting a lot of help in Ohio next week, just as he did in Michigan, and Rubio will be boosted in Florida.

“If Rubio wins Florida and Kasich wins Ohio, there’s a very good chance Trump can’t get to 1,237, and then we’re heading to the convention,” Anuzis says.

One thing Kasich did differently in Michigan than Cruz and Rubio is campaign on his own message, rather than on tearing down Trump. With the outrageously raucous GOP debate in Detroit, Kasich positioned himself as the adult in a room full of unruly juveniles.

“He’s the only one who behaved respectfully,” says Greg McNeilly, a west Michigan political strategist. “While brashness has appeal, so does sobriety.”

But for now, brashness is still winning by a mile.