john kasich at the deli_00000511.jpg
John Kasich had a lot of fun in the Bronx
01:53 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Some things can only happen in New York

The food, transportation and opinionated residents present challenges for candidates

CNN  — 

With a little over a week until New York’s crucial April 19 primaries, the presidential candidates from both sides of this whirlwind nominating season are running the Big Apple ragged.

Eating, baking, joking and cajoling their way on the campaign trail – skirting some mines, stepping squarely on others – the primary field has painted the town alternating shades of red and blue over the past week.

The Democrats – one Brooklyn-born, the other a former New York senator who keeps a home in the suburbs – have used the state as a battleground to measure their respective qualifications for the White House.

Bernie Sanders sought to re-up his hometown cred Sunday by tucking into a Nathan’s Famous hot dog on Coney Island, where thousands of supporters flocked to catch a glimpse (and an earful) of the Vermont senator, his wife and their celebrity escort, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe.

His lightly dressed order – Sanders said he used only “a little sauerkraut, a little mustard” – felt like an answer to the revelation last week that he was not aware the city had retired subway tokens more than a decade ago.

Hillary Clinton on Thursday had taken advantage of that opening, attempting a swipe – a few in fact – at her rival, while reconnecting with former constituents during a quick ride on the uptown 4 train outside Yankee Stadium.

Clinton’s struggles with the notoriously fickle MetroCard were mostly forgiven by empathetic locals – and even gave her something to razz New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about during her surprise appearance at the annual “Inner Circle” show on Saturday night. On stage, she interrupted the man who had managed her 2000 senate campaign, and took his sweet time in backing her current run (“Thanks for the endorsement, Bill … took you long enough!” Clinton said with a smile), with a joking plea.

“There are a lot of things I could ask you of international, national, state and city importance,” she said to the mayor about a transportation system he does not even control. “But would you just fix these MetroCard slots in the subway? It took me like five swipes.”

Because this is New York, Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” shared the stage and lit into Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who references “New York values” as a term of derision, first describing him as a “smug pile of expiring Pillsbury Crescent dough” and then “a rancid state fair butter sculpture.”

Clinton’s earlier visit to the Bronx had been wrought with distinctly outerborough issues.

In the same neighborhood where the four-time World Series champ Bernie Williams once patrolled center field for the Yankees, she heard calls for another “Bernie!” – though one less fond of pinstripes – from the boo-birds during a quick chat with reporters downstairs from the 161st Street station outside Yankee Stadium.

If Clinton had traveled another 25 minutes uptown, she could’ve broken bread with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was tearing through the menu at Mike’s Deli on Arthur Avenue with alternating bursts of wild-eyed delight and bewilderment.

On display there, but then quietly disappearing shortly before his arrival: a sign for the “Hillary Clinton” sandwich, a mess of salami, smoked mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, sweet peppers and olive oil on Italian seeded bread that one employee told CNN had been added to the menu during Clinton’s first Senate run in 2000.

While Kasich made the rounds, more than making up for a previous gastronomical gaffe – he was caught eating pizza with a fork – gobbling up the attention while feasting on a smorgasbord of Italian specialties.

Spaghetti Bolognese gave way to sandwiches even as the governor refused to give way to a server.

“I’m not done yet, I’m eating!” he informed the unwitting soul who had attempted to pry an unfinished dish from his grasp. Kasich then cried “Mamma Mia!” upon tucking into a bowl of pasta fagioli.

Mobbed by the press and quizzed by curious bystanders, the Ohioan also commented on the current state of the Yankees – “I think you need a right fielder!” – saying that while he would not consider a place in Donald Trump’s White House, the club’s retired captain Derek Jeter might yet field an offer to join his.

For Cruz, who visited the borough a day earlier, the scene had been somewhat less welcoming.

First, a local high school reportedly canceled a scheduled event under threat of student walkout. Then, inside a Bronx restaurant, he was confronted by an extremely angry protester and before he could meet with New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., Diaz’s son – the borough president – called Cruz a money-grubbing “hypocrite” at a press conference.

The New York Daily News on its front page the next morning invited Cruz, a figure of scorn here since coining “New York values,” to ride the “F U train” out of town.

Asked about their very precise directions by CNN’s Dana Bash, Cruz said he had “laughed out loud” and took the hammering as a badge of pride.

And with that, he set about to leaven his support in the Orthodox Jewish community with a visit to the Brooklyn Chabad Neshama Center’s “Model Matzah Bakery.”

If former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s announcement – delivered earlier that day – that he would vote for, though not formally endorse, Trump, had caused the Texas senator any agita, it was hardly apparent as he joined a group of children rolling dough for matzah ahead of the Passover holiday later this month.

Unlike that which he kneaded, Cruz is rising – in the national polls and Republican delegate count – and the devout Southern Baptist sought to make common cause with the crowd when he declared, “Next year in Jerusalem,” a common Seder night refrain.

But even as he spoke their language, the Texan refused to wear their hat.

Adhering to a shop-worn political truism that calls for candidates to avoid being photographed in any manner of unvetted headwear, Cruz turned down a baker’s cap, though did, some time later, don a yarmulke as he met with a group of rabbis and their wives down the block.

All this, and Donald Trump has barely said a word.

“Dayenu,” indeed.

Dan Merica and Cassie Spodak contributed to this report