John Kasich looks to capitalize in Iowa

Washington (CNN)John Kasich is making a more aggressive play in Iowa now that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- the candidate who pinned his hopes on winning the Hawkeye State -- has dropped out of the race.

The Ohio governor, who has visited Iowa only twice since announcing his presidential bid, plans to spend more time in the state and build out his political operation there. The goal, campaign aides said, is not to win Iowa, but to notch a strong finish that could help generate momentum and propel him to victory in New Hampshire.
"I think a top five finish would be great," said Cory Crowley, the Kasich campaign's Iowa state director. "Anywhere in the top half of the pack would be better than anyone expected."
Kasich has primarily focused his attention on New Hampshire where he has climbed the polls to land in third place behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. Solid debate performances, quick exits from other governors in the race and steady fundraising are inspiring Kasich's team to ramp up their efforts in Iowa.
    His unique resume -- Kasich served in Congress, worked for Lehman Brothers and later was elected governor of the crucial swing state of Ohio -- is a grab bag that allows his campaign to pitch him as someone who understands how Washington works but is still something of an outsider.
    But it's the true campaign outsiders who are leading the pack. Recent polls have shown Trump, a wealthy former reality television star, and Carson, a former neurosurgeon, in the lead. Also on the rise: former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.
    "When people actually get to their caucuses and get in the polling booth, they're going to want someone who at least has a record," said Crowley. "I think these outside candidates are appealing now, but they will have their pitfalls. You're kind of seeing that happening now with Carson's comments and others."
    Still a little-known figure, Kasich has trailed in the polls both in Iowa and nationwide. But over roughly the next week Kasich will visit the early caucus state twice to get a better gauge of his base of support there.
    "Every visit that he's made to the state thus far has been extremely well received," said Iowa state Rep. Mary Ann Hanusa, a state co-chair for Kasich's campaign. "We want to make sure that he is able to visit every part of the state at some point before the caucuses."
    Meanwhile, Kasich's campaign is reaching out to former Walker staffers and supporters in Iowa to try to bring them on board.
    In a fractured field, turning out a solid performance in Iowa could be a simpler proposition than in recent presidential cycles. A senior campaign staffer said Kasich might even be able to land a spot in the top three.
    "I think top three in Iowa is extremely doable with a minimal investment," the staffer said.
    As quickly as Iowa entices candidates, it can burn through their war chests and scorch their path to victory. And the expectations game there can be just as important as the ground game.
    It's a lesson Walker learned in brutal fashion, and one that has candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio approaching the state cautiously.
    In 2012, Mitt Romney quietly built an operation on the ground in Iowa, but he spent little time campaigning there until just ahead of the caucuses. As the nominating contest drew near, a well-funded super PAC carpet-bombed the airwaves with ads attacking Romney's rivals.
    While Romney ultimately fell short, his close second place finish generated momentum and helped him sail to victory in New Hampshire.
    Kasich, whose campaign is not as flush with cash as Romney's was, could have a tougher time executing a stealth campaign, said Doug Heye, a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and a former adviser to the Iowa GOP.
    His advice to Kasich's team: "Proceed slowly, but methodically."
    "Right now they're like, 'Oh, hey, Iowa could be interesting,' partly because Walker has imploded," Heye said. "Certainly there's a little bit of a vacuum but there's not a massive one."
    The senior Kasich campaign staffer said the goal is to be nimble and to capitalize on opportunities -- like an opening in Iowa -- as they present themselves.
    "As much as people think we are all in in New Hampshire, we are more than that," the staffer said. "We can pick up and move wherever we need to."