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For Kasich, New Hampshire Presence Is Paying Off

Janet Hook
September 2, 2015

Ohio governor has risen to second place among GOP presidential contenders in the state.

HENNIKER, N.H. — John Kasich, killing time between media interviews on the campaign trail Wednesday, threw a bad game of darts. But once he focused he threw two bull's-eyes in a row.

It serves as a metaphor for how he has been running for the GOP presidential nomination. One of the last candidates to enter the race, Mr. Kasich has been hyper-focused on New Hampshire, and it is starting to pay off.

The Ohio governor has spent more time in New Hampshire than perhaps anywhere but his home state. Pro-Kasich television ads have run daily for almost two months, blanketing the state that holds the nation's first presidential primary. As he made his 12th visit to the state this year, his campaign on Wednesday ran a Snapchat ad targeted just to New Hampshire residents.

Mr. Kasich has been rewarded with a notable rise in GOP polls here after barely six weeks as a candidate. He is emerging as a leading alternative to front-runner Donald Trump without directly attacking the billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV star as other candidates have done—often to their peril.

"We're spending too much time being negative about our lives," he said at New England College here, drawing an implicit contrast with Mr. Trump's appeal to voters' anger and frustration. Scoffing at a reporter who asked if he was angry enough to win the nomination, he said, "If it takes mean and angry, count me out."

Mr. Kasich, now in second place in recent New Hampshire polls, is putting most of his eggs in this one basket, calculating that an early win here will carry him to later contests.

It is a risky strategy because there are other formidable candidates who also are targeting the Granite State, a top destination for more-centrist contenders like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. New Hampshire has a large population of independent voters who are allowed to participate in the state's open primary, making it a more promising launchpad for centrist Republicans than the conservative-dominated Iowa caucuses that kick off the nominating contest Feb. 1.

That is why Mr. Christie has made more visits to New Hampshire than any other candidate—including a return this week for a two-day swing. His campaign bought $500,000 worth of ads in July, and the super PAC backing him aired $1.1 million in TV and digital ads that month. A new Christie ad started airing Wednesday. Still, Real Clear Politics calculates his average showing in recent New Hampshire polls is just 5.3% compared with Mr. Kasich's 12.7%.

Mr. Bush, whose polling average in the state is 9%, is also returning Thursday for two town hall meetings. The super PAC backing him has bought $11.4 million in TV time in New Hampshire to air ads between the middle of September and year's end.

But for most of this summer, Mr. Kasich has dominated the state's airwaves. In a bid to increase his low name-recognition, the pro-Kasich PAC New Day for America spent $5 million to run four introduce-the-candidate spots nonstop starting July 9.

"His ads have brought me in today," said Carol Jutras, a retiree who came to hear Mr. Kasich speak in Hooksett at Robie's Country Store, a must-stop destination for generations of presidential candidates.

While Mr. Bush and other GOP rivals have stepped up their attacks on Mr. Trump, Mr. Kasich stuck to his own script rather than respond to Mr. Trump's headline-grabbing rhetoric.

Mr. Kasich said in an interview that voters' interest in Mr. Trump and other "outsider" contenders like neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former corporate executive Carly Fiorina was a passing fancy that eventually will give way to a search for a candidate with governing experience.

"In the end, people want somebody to land the plane, and I landed a lot of planes," he said. "They are going to want somebody with legitimate experience and a real record of accomplishment."

But for Mr. Kasich and other candidates counting on New Hampshire, history is riddled with cautionary tales. In 2012, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was looking to the state to embrace his moderate Republicanism; he came in a distant third in the primary and dropped out of the race shortly after. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) in 2000 scored an upset victory over George W. Bush here, but couldn't sustain the momentum and lost the nomination.

In 2008, Mr. McCain had better luck: He won the primary over Mitt Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, marking a decisive reversal of Mr. McCain's sagging fortunes. The momentum carried him through South Carolina and on to win the GOP nomination.

Mr. Kasich said he is "building out" his campaign into other states but that New Hampshire is a crucial starting point. "It's not the end of the story but it's an important place," he said.

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