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Donald Trump is zeroing in on John Kasich

Kasich campaign accuses Trump of lies

Columbus, Ohio CNN —  

Thirteen minutes.

That amount of time may be the saving grace for John Kasich’s presidential campaign strategy, one that relies heavily on the state of Pennsylvania – a state where Kasich’s lawyers are battling to keep him on the ballot.

Central to that battle is a missed deadline by a Marco Rubio supporter in the state who objected to hundreds of signatures filed by Kasich’s campaign to get onto the state’s ballot. The deadline was missed, according to Kasich’s legal team, by all of 13 minutes, making the petition void.

Yet even seizing on that technicality hasn’t led to a simple resolution of the issue. As both sides prepare to file new briefs in the case Monday, no less than Kasich’s entire post-Ohio primary strategy is at stake.

The issue, which has been brewing quietly in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for a few weeks, has burst into the mainstream through, what else, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed in recent days.

Trump has fired off a handful of tweets on the ballot challenge facing Kasich in the state.

Neither tweet is factually accurate. Kasich is still on the ballot, and the signatures his campaign submitted to get onto that ballot were certified by the Pennsylvania secretary of state. Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich’s campaign, accused Trump of engaging in the same tactics pursued by Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa, when staffers passed word that Ben Carson would be dropping out – something that was not, in fact, happening at the time.

“Trump is lying to Ohioans, and we are consulting with our lawyers on our next steps,” Nichols said Sunday night in a statement.

Turning to Ohio, Trump cuts into Kasich

But that’s far from the end of the story.

On the final day challenges to ballot entrance in the state were allowed, Nathaniel Rome, a University of Pennsylvania student and chairman of Pennsylvania Students for Rubio, filed a petition questioning the validity of the signatures submitted by Kasich’s campaign. Of the 2,184 signatures submitted by Kasich’s campaign (2,000 are required to be on the ballot in the state), Rome contended that 802 were ineligible.

In court last week, Kasich’s attorneys appeared to grant Rome’s contention, confirming that 192 of the contested signatures were, in fact, not valid. Still, they argued, it shouldn’t matter. Rome’s petition was filed at 5:13 p.m. on deadline day – 13 minutes after what Kasich’s attorney Lawrence Otter says is the actual deadline. Therefore, the objection should be dismissed.

John Bravacos, Rome’s attorney and the brother of Rubio’s campaign chairman in the state, said the statute doesn’t specify that the deadline is 5 p.m., but instead only that objections must be filed within seven days of the filing deadline. That, he argued, should mean midnight, not 5 p.m. The judge in the case, Bonnie Leadbetter, did not rule and additional briefs from both sides are due Monday. The matter may eventually be bumped up to a three-judge panel.

Open to resolution

The resolution – one that could end up with Kasich off the ballot in the state – is both complicated and open to interpretation. The deadlines were set decades ago – a time, Leadbetter said, when online submission wouldn’t be possible. Therefore, she noted, the office would’ve been closed at 5 p.m., intimating that the time was the likely deadline the drafters had in mind. Still, it’s an issue that remains open.

COMING TUESDAY: Full Ohio results

For Kasich, that’s no small thing. While he has pinned the future of his campaign on winning Ohio’s primary on Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s April 26 primary – and the 71 delegates it holds – is central to his campaign’s future plans if he defeats Trump in his home state. Despite more than a month of separation between the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries, the state will be Kasich’s first post-Ohio stop. He heads to Philadelphia to campaign on Wednesday.

Publicly, Kasich’s team has remained confident that Kasich will be on the ballot. Nichols, in his statement, said the campaign is “100 percent certain that John Kasich will be on the ballot in Pennsylvania.”

“Trump’s dishonest tweets and robocalls means his team either knows nothing about Pennsylvania election law or he’s just scared to death we’re going to beat him,” he said.

Mitt Romney to campaign with John Kasich

Privately, Kasich advisers acknowledge that at this point there is little they can do. They are confident that the technicality their legal team is arguing – that Rome missed the deadline – will hold up, but at this point, it’s in the hands of the courts.

That hasn’t stopped Trump, however, and that’s no small concern. Trump, holding double-digit polling leads in the other major winner-take-all March 15 primary of Florida, has zeroed in on Ohio and, by extension, Kasich in recent days. His campaign has gone on air with a seven-figure television ad buy in the state. Trump has been savaging Kasich in rally after rally in the state and went so far as to cancel a Florida rally and replace it with one in Youngstown, Ohio on Monday – a sign that Kasich’s rise in the state is real. Raising the ballot issue, even if falsely, has become another weapon in Trump’s arsenal.

In a series of polls, most notably an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll in the state released on Sunday, Kasich has jumped Trump. His campaign, supporting super PAC New Day for America and even the state Republican party have deployed an extensive operation and advertising campaign to push the governor over the top.

For his part, Kasich has appeared unbothered by the possibility that the success of his future campaign strategy may come down to a technicality – 13 minutes.

Asked on Friday at an event in Dayton if he thought he would make the Pennsylvania ballot, Kasich responded, simply: yes.

“We’re going to be fine in Pennsylvania,” Kasich said.

CNN’s Cassie Spodak contributed to this report