Republican Gov. John Kasich has been playing catch-up in South Carolina after his presidential campaign got a boost from a second-place finish in New Hampshire this week. But while he’s been hopping around the Palmetto State, he has made clear his mind is set on Michigan.
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The Ohio governor, who flew overnight to South Carolina after Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary and plans to campaign here through Saturday, faces an uphill battle in a state in which fellow Republican Donald Trump has led the polls for months and in which former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, also running for the nomination, have invested much more time and resources.
When asked how well he expected to finish in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 GOP primary, Kasich told reporters this week he’d “leave that up to my experts” and that “we will do as well as we can here, and then we’re moving on.”
“I’m really looking forward to the South, and I’m really looking forward to the Midwest, and I can’t wait to get to Michigan,” he said after his first town hall-style meeting in South Carolina just hours after landing in Charleston.
Kasich has cultivated ties in Michigan, which is scheduled to hold its Republican primary March 8, and has even recently incorporated a joke about football coaches at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University into his stump speech.
"It’s a state that’s kindred spirits with Ohio, economically and politically,” Kasich’s chief strategist, John Weaver, told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
Still, a Kasich staffer who has directed the campaign’s operations in South Carolina, told ABC News the campaign was “not ceding any part" of South Carolina.
Tim Biggam, a regional political director for Kasich, said the campaign has had staff in the state for six months, although he would not say how many were employed here. The campaign released two new television advertisements today that it said will run statewide in South Carolina for a week.
While Weaver tempered expectations here as he said the state was a “must-win” for Bush and Rubio, he did say the Kasich campaign hoped to pick up delegates when South Carolinians head to the polls. But, he made clear, Michigan was more important to Kasich’s path to the nomination.
Indeed, Bush yard signs lined the highways between Kasich’s events Thursday, with nary a Kasich sign in sight. While Kasich’s events each attracted hundreds of people – a major jump from his smaller town hall meetings in New Hampshire – some attendees said his New Hampshire success was what pushed them to attend, and others could not pronounce his name correctly (it’s “Kay-SICK”).
“I had never really paid attention to him until he won in New Hampshire,” Anne Marie Gerald, a retired 73-year-old from North Myrtle Beach, S.C., told ABC News after a town-hall meeting the candidate held in the coastal city. “He caught my interest, so when I heard he came here, I wanted to hear more.”
Where Kasich’s campaign has lagged behind, a super PAC supporting him has picked up the slack. New Day for America, which has effectively supplanted Kasich’s official operation in several early-voting states, has a television advertisement on air and since October has had eight staff members in the state, including in each of its seven congressional districts, the group’s spokeswoman, Connie Wehrkamp, told ABC News.
At a town-hall meeting Kasich held Thursday at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., New Day for America set up a table right next to the Kasich campaign’s, with no clear distinction the two were separate.
Campaign to the left, super PAC to the right. pic.twitter.com/xi64sFKfsq— Ben Gittleson (@bgittleson) February 11, 2016
Part of Kasich’s strategy lies in his Christian faith’s new centrality to his message. In New Hampshire, where he held more than 100 town-hall meetings and heavily focused his campaign, Kasich typically only brought up his religion in a more general sense.
In South Carolina, where evangelical Christians make up about two-thirds of Republican voters, Kasich has invoked the intensely personal, speaking in a new television advertisement about how his parents' death at the hands of a drunken driver in 1987, led him closer to God. It is a story he’s recounted in writing before but hardly brought up on the campaign trail in less-religious New Hampshire.
"I was transformed," Kasich says in the ad. "I discovered my purpose by discovering the Lord. I believe the Lord put us on this earth to use the gifts that we've been given to bring about a healing. And that's the motivation for me."