Could John Kasich be New Hampshire primary's Rocky Balboa?

The Ohio Governor's all-out push in New Hampshire makes him a real threat to Marco Rubio in Tuesday's primary, but what happens after that remains a big question mark.

Jim Cole/AP
Snow begins to fall as Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich talks to reporters in Plaistow, N.H. after a campaign stop at the public library before next Tuesday's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Feb. 8, 2016.

Could John Kasich be the Rocky Balboa of the New Hampshire primary – the fighting underdog who shocks the world?

If he is, his timing may be apt – Sylvester Stallone, whose Rocky character hadn't appeared in the ring in about a decade, was nominated for Best Supporting Oscar for his role in "Creed."

Ohio Governor Kasich seems to be running as an unapologetic blast-from-the-past candidate. His congressional experience, which he talks about often, began in 1983. That’s roughly the era of “Rocky III.”

During his opening statement at last September’s Ronald Reagan Library GOP debate, Kasich gestured towards the retired Air Force One that served as the event’s backdrop.

“I think I actually flew on this plane with Ronald Reagan when I was a congressman, and his goals, and mine ... are pretty much the same,” said Kasich.

And remember, Rocky did not actually win his big fight against Apollo Creed in the first movie in the series. He lost on points. But he “won” by going the distance and vastly outperforming expectations. Kasich could duplicate that in Tuesday’s Granite State vote.

He’s poured almost all his energy and money into New Hampshire, after all. Kasich – like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and to some extent Jeb Bush – is counting on a strong New Hampshire finish to grab the media’s attention, develop some perceived momentum, and build a case as the establishment’s best hope to beat back the insurgent outsiders.

Of those three, Kasich has the best shot. He lags in national polls, running at about 4 percent. But he triples that number in New Hampshire, where he’s polling at 12.4 percent, only a percentage point or two behind Sen. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz for a strong fourth place.

And there are signs he’s building momentum. A Monmouth University poll released over the weekend put him in second, at 14 percent, in front of Senator Rubio and Mr. Bush. Scott Conroy, a Huffington Post political reporter, tweeted on Sunday that he’d seen three internal polls, two from campaigns and one from a super political action committee, that had Kasich in second place “with a solid cushion.”

Those results may be outliers or campaign spin. Polling in early primaries is notoriously difficult, as shown by the fact that almost all surveys missed the Iowa caucus results, badly. Donald Trump remains the heavy favorite to win the Granite State.

But in New Hampshire at least, Kasich seems to be Marco Rubio’s biggest threat. By virtue of his strong Iowa finish, Rubio’s in a tough spot – expectations have risen, but it’s not clear he’s a good fit for the flinty New Hampshire electorate. He needs to finish second. Kasich complicates that.

The data journalism site FiveThirtyEight projects that Kasich has a 30 percent chance of finishing first or second in New Hampshire.

“If Rubio finishes worse than second, the candidate most likely to beat him is Kasich,” writes FiveThirtyEight polling expert Harry Enten.

Remember, New Hampshire is an open primary, meaning anyone can vote in whichever party’s primary they choose. That’s good for Kasich, because he’s relatively strong with liberals and independents.

That same crossover appeal may doom him in the long run, however. Most GOP primaries are closed to party members. And Kasich has been endorsed by The New York Times, which named him the most presidential of the GOP candidates – a nod from a perceived liberal source that will alienate many conservatives. As Ohio’s governor, he expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, an apostasy as far as the right is concerned.

In the end, Kasich may be both the Rocky of the 2016 race, and it’s Jon Huntsman Jr. Remember Huntsman? He was an ex-Utah governor and moderate who served as President Obama’s Ambassador to China, then quit to run for the GOP 2012 nomination. He did relatively well in New Hampshire, too, winning 17 percent of the vote and finishing third behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

But that was it. Huntsman, facing fierce conservative opposition and an empty campaign bank account, quit the race a week later. At the time he saw clearly that the New Hampshire vote was going to be the peak of his campaign.

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