John Kasich, back against the wall, strikes out against Cruz, Trump

Story highlights

  • Kasich is running a distant third in delegate totals
  • At a New York news conference on Wednesday, Kasich detailed Donald Trump's failings as a candidate

Milwaukee, Wisconsin (CNN)John Kasich needs delegates. He needs money. He needs votes. So far, he's running short on all three.

His back against the wall and running a distant third in delegate totals, the Ohio governor opened a new front in his campaign Thursday, a multi-pronged effort to critique -- in detail -- Donald Trump's failings as a candidate and potential commander and chief and pitch himself to Trump's voters as the natural alternative, rather than Ted Cruz, to the New York billionaire.
    "While the person that you have favored continues to move in an unmoored, untethered fashion, I understand that at times he's the vessel for your frustration," Kasich at a New York news conference. "And I want to offer myself up as a new vessel, who can actually understand your problems, recognize your problems, and work aggressively to fix them."
    It was an appearance punctuated by Kasich actually using notes -- something the candidate, who has used unwieldy yet equal parts appealing, endearing, head-scratching and outright humorous town halls to form the backbone of his campaign, rarely does. It was Kasich's most deliberate effort to, point by point, take down Trump -- an effort top aides have been pushing him toward for weeks and that Kasich has slowly worked himself up to in the wake of the violence at a canceled Trump rally in Chicago.
    Also Thursday, a super PAC supporting Kasich, New Day for America, drafting off comments from Kasich campaign aides in recent days, cut a new ad attacking Cruz -- using, of all things, one of Trump's personally bestowed noms de Cruz: Lyin' Ted.
    The ad, deployed as part of a half-million dollar buy in advance of Wisconsin's April 5 primary, came as the Cruz campaign, pro-Cruz super PACs and the senator himself continued to blister Kasich every time the opportunity presented itself. For their part, Cruz-world sees Kasich's candidacy as ridiculous --- a vanity-driven effort destined to hand Trump the GOP nomination.
    "You're not electable if you can't win elections," Cruz told Wisconsin conservative radio host Charlie Sykes on Thursday. "He's lost 30 nationwide."
    The attacks, while Kasich tends to look past them publicly, have riled his team, which telegraphed quite clearly in public forums in recent days that "Lyin' Ted" was fair game as an attack line for the pro-Kasich super PAC to deploy. The group has done just that.
    Kasich has prided himself in staying above the fray, using his "I won't to take the low road to the highest office" line as the crowning moment in most of his nearly 200 town halls.
    But this is a new phase of the campaign -- one that tracks somewhat with his consistent message that a good candidate with a vision for the future will rise eventually -- but sharpened with his strong anti-Trump statement. The attacks underscore that Kasich's campaign is, in some ways at least, casting about for something -- anything -- to stick.
    Still, Kasich indicated his new willingness to attack won't last in an interview Thursday night with CNN's Anderson Cooper.
    "This isn't where I'm going to live. I'm going to live just like we did at the town hall that we did in Wisconsin, that I thought was very successful in letting people know who I am and what my thoughts are," he said, referring to CNN's Tuesday night town hall in Milwaukee.
    He said he hasn't seen his super PAC's anti-Cruz ad, but will watch it, and noted that he has already criticized his super PAC for an attack it launched at Marco Rubio earlier in the race.
    "I can't tell my super PAC what to do, but I can have some serious comments about it, and I will look at this," Kasich said.
    Kasich has had his moments. A second-place finish in New Hampshire shot him into real consideration in the GOP primary. An 11-point drubbing of Donald Trump in his home state of Ohio kept him alive. But establishment figures like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mitt Romney, current or former governors all, and in Kasich's lane ideologically, are now backing Cruz.
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    In the wake of New Hampshire, Kasich's team was hoping for a strong finish in Michigan. Kasich came in third. In Illinois, he again pulled in endorsements and packed town halls, but only won five delegates, 53 behind Trump.
    Now in Wisconsin, and sitting at third in the polls, Kasich is strategically shifting money around the state in an effort to pick up three, or maybe six, delegates through winning a couple of congressional districts.
    But his theory of the case still stands. At the Republican convention, the logic of the delegates on the floor will usurp the will of the voters at the ballot box. Regardless of delegate totals or potential rules road blocks, the delegates will come to the conclusion that John Kasich is the only chance to win in November. To back this theory up, Kasich's operation points out that Kasich has consistently polled better than Hillary Clinton nationwide -- a fact, even as critics point out flaws in general election match-up polls at this stage in the race.
    "I believe the overwhelming majority of delegates are going to take this seriously and I think that's where we are going. Less Kardashians, more who is going to be president," Kasich told reporters in New York. "Not that I have anything against the Kardashians."
    Cruz, for his part, dismissed this idea today during his appearance on the Sykes radio show, saying that "Part of the reason he does well against Hillary is that no one knows anything about him."