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John Kasich Faces Make-Or-Break GOP Primary In Ohio

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Last night, Ohio Gov. John Kasich fell just short of well-managed expectations in the Michigan Republican primary. This was the lobby just outside the hotel event room, where Kasich's supporters waited for him at a primary night results party. The campaign brought in volunteers to run a phone bank.

TIM ADAMS: Hi there. My name's Tim.

CHRIS REDNOUR: Hi, my name's Chris. I'm a volunteer calling on behalf of Gov. John Kasich. How are you this evening?

SIEGEL: Kasich supporters like Tim Adams and Chris Rednour called Ohio voters, urging them to vote for the governor in next Tuesday's winner-take-all Ohio primary.

REDNOUR: Yes, ma'am. Excellent. Thank you so much. Have a great evening.

SIEGEL: The imagery was clear. It may have been primary night in neighboring Michigan, campaign staffers and well-wishers may have been there to party, but the Kasich campaign's target is his home turf next week. Tim Adams told me that, earlier in the day, he'd been calling voters in Michigan, where he put in some time knocking on doors.

What are you hoping for tonight?

ADAMS: Well, I'm hoping for a big first-place finish in Michigan. If you look at the late deciders, there's a poll out right now that shows we're in first place. Now, it's a proportional state, so would I be satisfied with a strong second? You bet, absolutely.

SIEGEL: A few hundred Kasich supporters crowded into the event room, waiting for news from up north. At 9 p.m. sharp, Fox News, which is on several big HD screens, called Donald Trump the winner - that was no big surprise - but also described a close race for second between Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The noise in this room went down several decibels when that news was announced.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And a disappointed finish, relatively speaking, for Kasich in Michigan...

SIEGEL: By the time all the counting was done, Kasich finished in third place, just behind Cruz, although they won the same number of delegates. Kasich supporters told me their man was getting unfair play from the press. Don't focus on his getting only 24 percent in Michigan, they said. Focus on how far he's come from behind. One poll late last month had him at only 8 percent there. Some of Kasich's most enthusiastic backers in the room were his former colleagues from Congress, people like Christopher Shays, who used to be a Republican representative from Connecticut.

CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: I love this man. And if there's anyone who's not a so-called establishment candidate, it's John Kasich. It's just bizarre that he gets tagged with that. So at any rate...

SIEGEL: It's a negative this year. I mean, if you're called an establishment candidate, you take a nosedive.

SHAYS: It is a negative. It is a negative, but it's always been a negative for John. He's never been the establishment candidate. I mean, he's always been pushing against the status quo.

SIEGEL: It is not lost on Republicans that candidates branded the establishment's best hope this year, from Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio, have sunk under the weight of that dubious honor. And when John Kasich came out to address the crowd last night, he, too, spoke of balancing the budget in the 1990s as a case of fighting the establishment. He gave a passionate victory speech, even as he was slipping in the Michigan results from silver to bronze. And in tone, it was the opposite of a Trump celebration of winners and winning.


JOHN KASICH: For the people out there who feel as though no one pays attention, the ones that live in the shadows, the mentally ill, the drug-addicted, the working poor who get penalized for working harder and smarter, or for the developmentally disabled, or our friends in the minority community, as we rise economically, no one - no one will be left behind in the United States of America if I'm president.


SIEGEL: Another strong Kasich supporter is the Ohio state Republican chairman, Matt Borges. Borges admits good naturedly to having though back in the summer that Donald Trump would fade and fizzle by the fall, and then in the fall that he would fade and fizzle by winter.

MATT BORGES: So now we're figuring sometime by next January.

SIEGEL: Why should it fade, by the way? I mean, why isn't he the clear front-runner who's picked up on something and connected with voters in Republican primaries and he'll win?

BORGES: Look, we have been looking for that transformational figure in the party for a long time - somebody who can have a different appeal to voters, who can attract Democrats, who cannot play the media's game, so to speak. And Donald Trump has checked all those boxes. I just wish he were using his powers for good.

SIEGEL: Instead, Borges says, Trump has been incendiary and divisive. The Ohio State Republican Party chairman says a Trump nomination in July would spell a GOP defeat in November.

BORGES: I don't think we'll win the election in 2016 if Donald Trump's our nominee. And that's sad because, right now, the only thing standing between us and a Republican in the White House is ourselves.

SIEGEL: The theory of the Kasich campaign goes like this - most of the states that are coming up now are typically states in the North, territory better suited for to the candidate from Ohio. Marco Rubio is faltering, they say, so the political space near the center is Kasich's. If no one wins a majority of delegates, then Trump could be thwarted in an open convention that might turn to Kasich. The problem for the Kasich Camp is that Trump just keeps winning, and the published polls in Ohio show Trump with a growing lead there. In Columbus, Ohio, this is Robert Siegel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.