John Kasich prepares for March Madness

Gov. John Kasich: 'I will win Ohio'
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Gov. John Kasich: 'I will win Ohio' 01:16

Story highlights

  • John Kasich's team sees a series of states --- Michigan, his home state of Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, as places where his fortunes will shift.
  • Their plan: Do well in Michigan on Tuesday, then win in Ohio on March 15 and he'll become the standard bearer of the non-Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party

Detroit (CNN)John Kasich is home. Well, close to home --- just across the border from the state where he sits as governor, traveling around Michigan for a campaign many in his party wish would just end.

John Kasich: You unite people with ideas
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For Kasich and his team, the Midwest is where they'll make their last stand. They see a series of states --- Michigan, his home state of Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, as places where his fortunes will shift. Or, as he explained it to supporters on Super Tuesday in Jackson, Mississippi, it's a bit like the NCAA basketball tournament -- everyone fights all year to get home court advantage, and over the next two weeks, that's exactly what he'll have.
    "It's now March Madness and we're moving up north," Kasich said at the debate here on Thursday night. "To my turf, okay?"
    Excusing the loose metaphor (technically, nobody gets home court advantage during March Madness --- the games are played neutral sites), Kasich is finally on the ground where his team has been targeting to fight since his second-place finish in New Hampshire. Their plan: Do well in Michigan on Tuesday, then win in Ohio on March 15 and he'll become the standard bearer of the non-Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party, even if his pathway from a delegate standpoint looks increasingly closed, save for a brokered convention fight.
    "I'm going to win Ohio, and when I win Ohio it's a whole new ballgame," Kasich told CNN's Dana Bash after Thursday night's presidential debate.
    And for a large segment of Republicans, riding the viral #NeverTrump movement and desperate for a Trump alternative, that should be a good thing. Only it hasn't been enough --- many are begging, either in actual statements or behind closed doors, for Kasich to drop out of the race.
    "There is no honorable mention in the nomination. John Kasich has run a good race," said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a supporter of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "But the bottom line is that we need to elect a Republican who shares the values of the Republican Party and that's not Donald Trump."
    The theories for why Kasich -- sitting nearly 300 delegates behind Trump after Super Tuesday and without a victory in a single state to call his own -- is still in the race vary and verge on the conspiratorial when discussed with advisers in rival campaigns. For some, it's a pure ego play. For others, it's an effort to position himself as a potential top official in Trump's administration.

    Attacks against Rubio

    But Kasich hasn't been shy in going after other candidates, particularly Marco Rubio, for their inability to do anything to stop the billionaire businessman on turf perceived as more friendly to their efforts.
    Asked Wednesday what he thought of the accusation by Rubio supporters that he's taking votes from him, Kasich quickly turned combative. "Well, maybe he's taking votes from me," he responded, saying he could've won Massachusetts if Rubio hadn't been in the race and then accusing Rubio of sending "hit men" up to Vermont, where he finished a close second to Trump, to deliberately suppress his vote.
    Joe Pounder, a Rubio spokesman, said Rubio's team was active in Vermont campaigning on "Marco's message of uniting our party, winning in November, and ushering in a New American Century," but rejected Kasich's accusation. "We think John Kasich may need to take a break from the campaign trail because now he's just seeing things that aren't there."
    But Kasich wasn't done targeting Rubio. "They were predicting they were going to win like four states," Kasich told reporters. "They won some caucus somewhere. What was it, Minnesota or something? That's really, that's...frankly it doesn't even aggravate me because it's silly."
    He then moved to the message he's kept on constant refrain for more than a week. 
"Look, it gets down to: can he win Florida, do I win Ohio. That's what we'll see. If you can't win your own state, I don't know how you move on."
    That's the ballgame for Kasich -- Ohio or bust -- and it's one that even those who question his candidacy acknowledge may help their overall goal of stopping Trump. Ohio is a winner-take-all state and a Kasich win would not only deprive Trump of a chunk of delegates, but also a victory in a state crucial to any general election win.
    It's a strategy 2012 nominee Mitt Romney more or less endorsed in his scathing remarks against Trump Thursday: back the strongest candidate in each state and keep Trump from the requisite delegates.

    Getting past Michigan

    First, however, comes Michigan, and it's here where Kasich's own expectations have been ratcheted back in recent weeks. At one point advisers were building it up as equivalent to New Hampshire -- an ideal state for Kasich to make a big stand, setting himself up for a string of big performances when Ohio and nearby Illinois follow a week later. Yet the reality of Trump -- once again capitalizing on the economic uncertainty driving anger and uneasiness in yet another state -- has set in in recent days.
    A new poll from the Detroit Free Press and local television networks put Kasich in fourth in the state -- last place, now that Ben Carson has all but ended his campaign. He sat 18 points behind Trump and 10 and nine, respectively, behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rubio.
    That doesn't mean Kasich is giving in on the state, where a major week-long push of his patented town halls -- events his competitors shelved after New Hampshire -- will serve as the backbone of an effort bolstered by paid advertising from his campaign and supporting super PAC. It's all intended to push him into the top tier of the finishers in the state.
    At his town hall in Grand Blanc, a town about 10 miles north of troubled Flint, Michigan, many of those in attendance voiced the anxiety underscored by years of economic, cultural and technological shifts that served to hollow out much of the state's manufacturing infrastructure. To each questioner, Kasich attempted to address the issues head on and give the straight, "adult in the room" answers that have become the hallmark of his campaign.
    "Do you really think we're going to abolish the IRS?" Kasich asked one questioner who posited just that, before continuing on to tell him if that was the case, he should look under his pillow the next morning to see what the Tooth Fairy had delivered.
    But Kasich, and his team, see his method -- one that resonated so effectively in New Hampshire -- plays in this neck of the woods.
    Being from a border state, even one that serves as a mortal college football enemy, doesn't hurt.
    "That's a really attractive shirt," Kasich said at one point to a young attendee wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt. "Yeah, it's really nice. I hope nobody recorded that for what I have to do in a week." He went on to add that someone with the stature of legendary University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler should head the IRS.
    As he moved to close his event, he played up his proximity again. "Let's be honest, we are a border," he said. "Better than someone from 1,000 miles away."
    Kasich now has less than a week to convince voters in the state that's true -- the first test in a two week period that will determine whether he remains in the race. Despite the detractors -- and Kasich is clearly aware there are no shortage of them -- if there's ever going to be a Kasich moment, just a few weeks before March Madness tips off, this is it. As he put it Wednesday: "Now comes the home court."