Inside John Kasich's strategy to beat Donald Trump in Ohio

John Kasich: We need free, fair trade
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Story highlights

  • John Kasich is relying on a strong ground game, state party and super PAC help to win his home state of Ohio
  • Polls have him in a close race with Donald Trump
  • Kasich has made clear his campaign rests upon winning Tuesday's primary

(CNN)John Kasich had plenty of good reasons to fall to his knees and kiss the ground as he walked to the stage for an event about 20 miles outside of Cleveland on Tuesday.

After six weeks of contests that aides acknowledge were mostly unfavorable to his message and brand of Republican politics, he was finally home. Back in a state where he took his first elected office at the age of 26. Back in a state where he holds a 77% approval rating among Republicans. Back in a state where he won 86 of 88 counties on his way to a second term in the governor's office less than two years ago.
    Trailing badly in delegates, Ohio marks what the Kasich campaign sees as a turning point -- the moment where a win can springboard him into contention in the contests ahead, many of which come in more favorable states.
    "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Kasich said at the CNN Republican debate in Miami on Thursday night. "We don't know what's going to happen because we still have about half the delegates to be selected. And that's what's going to be a very interesting thing to see how it all turns out as we move forward over the next couple of weeks."
    Kasich is supposed to have advantages in Ohio, of course. It's his home state. But structural advantages in the Buckeye State -- the result of strategic moves made as far back as 2012 -- could help him fend off GOP front-runner Donald Trump. Should Kasich lose Ohio, he has said he will drop out of the race.
    An unusual arrangement with the state Republican party and a supportive super PAC loaded with former top aides from the governor's office has allowed Kasich to lay an extensive groundwork ahead of the March 15 primary.
    "We're running a truncated, mini-gubernatorial campaign in a month," Matt Borges, the Ohio Republican Party chairman, said in an interview. "Do I think all of those things make up a couple of points? Yes."
    Kasich trailed Trump in Ohio by 6 points in the most recent CNN/ORC poll, 41% to 35%. But a Fox News poll released Wednesday showed Kasich ahead by 5 points. The reality, state officials say, is that the race is largely a toss-up at this point.
    "We know where we have a lot of work to do," Borges said. "You have a governor with a 77% approval rating. We've gotta remind Ohioans why they like him, what they like about him."
    Internally, Kasich's team is encouraged by what they see happening on the ground. Save for a series of ad buys and a few appearances in the state, they've seen little else in the form of an organization from Trump in the state. Marco Rubio, focused solely on survival in Florida, and Ted Cruz, aren't planning any stops in the state. In the past few primary contests, including in Michigan, late breaking voters have trended toward Kasich, not Trump. A race that becomes essentially a one-on-one battle with Trump, with a full week of a coordinated blitz to hammer home why people in the state approved of Kasich to begin with, provides a clear opportunity to rise, aides and supporters say.

    The Plan

    The conversations on how, exactly, the state party would help boost Kasich started back in November, Borges said. Kasich found a receptive audience, as he knew he would -- he'd helped to engineer a takeover of the state party's leadership two years after he first settled into office in Columbus. By December, a strategy was finalized and a month later, it was put into action when the state party issued its first presidential primary endorsement in more than 50 years.
    The efforts started somewhat benignly: with the party's slate card, a party document mailed to each registered Republican in the state naming official endorsements. Kasich was top on the card of party-supported candidates, which was sent to around 1 million Ohio voters. The card is far from a guarantee of votes, but it is a persuasion tactic, one that Borges called "very, very effective."
    Then came the party dinners -- more than 35 Lincoln Day dinners around the state. Top Kasich surrogates, including the state's lieutenant governor, attorney general and GOP Sen. Rob Portman, spoke to crowds ranging from 100 to 1,200 Republican voters on Kasich's behalf at each.
    "If you're going to pay money to go to a Republican dinner, you're certainly voting in the primary," Borges said.
    The surrogate dispatch efforts extended to media markets around the state, with the state party's communications team serving as the de facto home base of operations, deploying pro-Kasich officials for dozens of appearances.
    The crown jewel, of sorts, for both the state party and the super PAC efforts, has been in locking in absentee voters. The state party boasts a well-honed absentee targeting program, and is cooperating with Kasich's super PAC, New Day for America, which has follows up after initial state party contact and modeled where those potential voters stand. That has helped provide a more accurate view of the current landscape in the state -- a landscape Kasich's team believes most current public polling is undershooting.

    Local races help Kasich as well

    State races have also provided an opportunity. With primaries up and down the ballot, including in congressional races, volunteers knocking on doors have been equipped with pro-Kasich messages and literature.
    There has been a particular focus on former House Speaker John Boehner's district in the Cincinnati suburbs, where multiple candidates in the primary to take his seat have agreed to spread the Kasich message during their efforts.
    Colton Henson, campaign manager for Tim Derickson, an Ohio state representative running for Boehner's old seat, said pushing for Kasich candidacy can be mutually beneficial -- it's one that helps underscore the record Republican lawmakers have had throughout the state. It makes sense, according to Henson, "to be part of that message." As he spoke, campaign volunteers were knocking on doors in Stark County, Kasich literature in hand.
    "In Boehner's district, you know it's going to be very, very high turnout, so we're trying to reach as many of those people as possible," Borges said. It's also a district that represents Kasich's base --- the pro-business, country club-Republican-laden suburbs around the state in places outside Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton that have served as the financial backbone of his gubernatorial runs.
    Boehner, who has stayed out of endorsing a candidate to replace him, has also stayed away from a presidential endorsement. While he hasn't ruled out making one at some point, he has no plans to do so in the near future, according to Dave Schnittger, a former top Boehner aide who now serves as his spokesman since his retirement.

    Super PAC boost

    On the super PAC side, New Day for America, which has spent millions of dollars in support of Kasich's efforts in New Hampshire, Michigan and around the northeast, has started a blitz in the his home state.
    New Day for America has 30 staffers focused solely on Ohio, eight offices and has booked more than $1.2 million for statewide ads. Each office houses a phone bank and the group is deploying pop-up phone banks around the state this week, all while equipping their volunteers with the ability to make calls outside the offices, so long as they own an iPad or smart phone and a wi-fi connection.
    Kasich may also benefit from other anti-Trump super PACs. Our Principles PAC on Thursday launched a $1 million ad campaign in Ohio hitting Trump manufacturing many of his products abroad. The entrance of anti-Trump money into the state is something Borges and other top state party officials had requested in recent days. Their pitch, he said, was that Florida was slipping away from Rubio and if the goal is to stop Trump, Ohio was the best place to do it.
    On top of it all sits the reality that Kasich just ran a state-wide race in 2014. When it comes to targeting potential voters for their turn out operation, needless to say, according to Borges, "the political organization is certainly not stale."
    So where does all of that leave Kasich? Still neck and neck with Trump, it turns out. While there have already been more absentee ballot requests than in 2012, there have also been more requests from crossover voters -- a group Trump has capitalized on throughout the early primary season. GOP officials in the state acknowledge that, at least at this point, the race can break either way. It's a jarring reality given Kasich's approval rating in the state, yet one that underscores the effectiveness of Trump's Rust Belt-centric message.
    Trump, eyeing a sweep of winner-take-all states Florida and Ohio that would likely eliminate two of his rivals, has started to shift his attacks toward Kasich as the primary approaches.
    "As you know, we have Ohio, which has an absentee governor," Trump said at a rally in North Carolina on Wednesday. "Absentee. I think we're going to do great in Ohio. Great, great, great in Ohio."
    Through the ups and downs, Kasich remains. Asked during a swing through Illinois on Wednesday how he viewed polls that appeared to show him stalling in his efforts to defeat Trump, Kasich responded with a challenge.
    "You think I'm stalled out? Come to Ohio and we'll see," he said. "You'll see what's gonna happen."