Jeb Bush, John Kasich clash looms in New Hampshire

Story highlights

  • John Kasich is surging in New Hampshire
  • The Ohio governor's success could stunt Jeb Bush

(CNN)Jeb Bush's New Hampshire strategy is working out fine -- just not for him.

But for John Kasich, it's a different story. The Ohio governor is on the rise, adopting elements of the Bush playbook and threatening to elbow his rival out of the role of establishment conservative with genuine general election appeal.
Should he build on a fast start in the Granite State and improve his so far limited appeal elsewhere, it's becoming clear that Kasich could emerge as a viable rival to Bush for the affections of the GOP elites.
    For all his struggles to deal with the volcanic outsider Donald Trump, it could be the biggest threat to Bush winning the GOP nomination will be the chipper career politician from the Buckeye State.
    Even if he fails to make it big nationwide, Kasich could still wound Bush with a big night in New Hampshire in February. That's because the former Florida governor's tough road in other early voting states makes a strong Granite State showing imperative.
    "If Bush isn't going to win in New Hampshire and he can't win in Iowa — and nobody thinks he can do well in South Carolina — he will be done," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. "The one that is going to be the most affected by John Kasich's rise is Jeb Bush."
    Republican strategist Ford O'Connell agrees on the importance of New Hampshire for Bush, arguing that history shows the state favors an establishment GOP candidate who is fairly moderate on many issues but is hawkish on national security.
    "That would favor someone like Jeb Bush, but when it comes to corralling those establishment voters, I do think that John Kasich is the biggest threat to Jeb Bush becoming the nominee," he said.
    And Bush needs a victory, or least a robust performance in New Hampshire, to set him up as a formidable candidate in later contests.
    "Bush has to win New Hampshire and Florida. To get that momentum he has to have a strong showing in New Hampshire. If John Kasich wins New Hampshire or places second, the game board dramatically changes for Jeb Bush in a lot of ways," said O'Connell.
    In some ways, it seems that Kasich is running the "joyful" presidential campaign that Bush said he would seek.
    "We do all kinds of town halls and meetings and parades and everything else. So we're just having a good time. I'm enjoying myself," Kasich told reporters Monday. "This is stuff for the memory banks isn't it? You know you meet a lot of cool people, you go to a lot of cool places, so what is there not to like?"
    Bush says a candidate needs to risk losing the primary to win the general election -- in other words, must avoid clamping himself to radical conservative orthodoxy that could alienate moderates in November 2016. But his plan for a summer of policy conversations died in the Trump media tornado.
    Kasich, however only jumped into the race in late July. He still seems fresh, as does his message blending fiscal conservatism and patriotic optimism.
    He's not afraid to touch issues some conservatives won't like, like prison reform, same-sex marriage and what he calls "flesh and blood" questions like mental illness, drug addiction and the working poor.
    That approach seems to partly explain his cross-party popularity back home.
    In fact, Kasich seems to have many of the advantages of Bush, without being saddled by the dynastic millstone of his family name.
    "Jeb Bush is a very smart guy. He's had some good experience in the past but I think he brings some baggage with him," said registered Republican voter Glen Currie from Concord, New Hampshire.
    "The last thing I want to see, frankly, is another Bush/Clinton race," Currie said, arguing Kasich had the potential to unite the nation better than either of those two candidates.
    The Ohio governor also has Washington experience, with almost two decades in the House of Representatives. But he's been away from Capitol Hill for more than a decade, which could make it easier for him to escape the anti-Beltway wrath of the conservative grass-roots.
    Pam Kocher, a registered Republican from Barrington, New Hampshire, said she liked Kasich because of his record of working across party lines -- and believed that his Washington experience would be an asset.
    "I know that the outsiders have attracted a great deal of attention but in order to really know how to work an institution like Congress and the White House, you have to have experience if you're going to be effective," she said.
    Like Bush, Kasich brings the prospect of putting a vital swing state in play that Republicans need to win the presidency. He can also boast that he has widened the net among minority, women and centrist voters -- in exactly the way Bush says Republicans must do to win back the White House.
    Kasich, after a savvy campaign launch, flurry of town hall meetings and judicious advertising spending, has leapfrogged Bush in the first-in-the-nation primary state polling. He's currently the top GOP establishment foe to Trump.
    In the latest poll of the Republican primary in New Hampshire, released Sunday by NBC News and Marist, Kasich was second on 12%, behind the billionaire property mogul, who was the runaway leader on 28%. Bush was fourth with 8%.
    That's a serious reverse from a June survey, when Bush led a CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire at 16%, a figure that did much to bolster perceptions his campaign was then anchored in a power base in an important early voting state.
    Kasich is not showing anything like that kind of strength elsewhere in the nation. He barely registers in Iowa and South Carolina, and averages about 3% in national surveys of the Republican race.
    But beyond polling evidence detailing the rise of Kasich, there's a more fundamental reason why Bush should fear him and why the Ohio governor's appeal in New Hampshire may prove more enduring than a late summer fling.
    "He is made to order for New Hampshire voters, he's fiscally conservative and has balanced budgets and has been a responsible steward on the financial situation," said Fowler. "New Hampshire voters are tight-fisted, they appreciate that."
    And the broad coalition Kasich assembled in his 2014 re-election triumph in Ohio may represent his strongest claim to be a viable nominee.
    Kasich won 64% of the vote in a state President Barack Obama won twice, including 26% of African-Americans and 60% of self-declared moderates in exactly the kind of broadening of the Republican coalition Bush advocates.
    Still, Kasich has a long way to go before proving he has the staying power to mount a strong challenge all the way through to February. Polls this far out can be deceptive.
    "He could very well have a chance but at this point the fact that Donald Trump is sucking all the oxygen out of the air makes it difficult for any candidate to establish themselves," said Krista Jenkins, a professor and polling expert at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "There is a tendency to speculate -- but it is so early and it remains such a difficult race to predict."
    Still, it's clear that Bush cannot risk entering the New Hampshire primary season locked in single figures. So he's beginning to deploy his biggest advantage in the race -- his significant financial muscle.
    On Tuesday, his campaign said it would spend $500,000 to air an ad online and on television in New Hampshire, moves that simultaneously appear to be a swipe against Trump and an attempt to shore up his defenses against Kasich and other rivals.
    "If you want more self-promoters or more D.C. politicians, you have got options," Bush said in the ad, filmed in a factory, that seeks to highlight his "proven conservative" record as an activist governor in Florida between 1999 and 2007.
    "As governor, I cut taxes, cut spending and led the nation in job creation," Bush said in comments that might have been aimed at matching Kasich's fiscal credentials.