Ohio Republicans like Gov. Kasich, but will they vote for him over Trump?

The underdog Republican candidate spent the weekend campaigning hard in Ohio. His team says they believe a win there could decisively challenge Donald Trump. 

Matt Rourke/ AP
Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich talks to a crowd at Xperion Energy & Environment in Heath, Ohio on March 12, ahead of the state's primary on March 15.

Ohioans generally like Governor John Kasich, as the Republican hopeful's campaign was urgently trying to remind them in the last hours leading up to Tuesday's party primary. The election is being cast not only as a make-or-break vote for the second-term governor, but as a mandate on any candidate's hope of stopping Donald Trump from gaining the nomination. 

According to a Fox News poll, 79 percent of likely primary voters in the Buckeye State approve of the job Kasich has done as governor. The Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed Kasich, called him a "compassionate conservative" who would be able to take his history of job creation and fiscal responsibility to Washington. 

But in the 2016 race, political experience doesn't always translate into votes.  

The Fox poll gave Kasich an edge in his home state, with 34 percent of likely Ohio Republican primary voters saying they'd cast a ballot for the governor, versus 29 percent for business mogul Donald Trump. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, with 19 percent, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, with 7 percent, have more or less given up on Ohio, with Senator Rubio's team even urging Ohio supporters to vote for Kasich instead, to help coalesce the anti-Trump movement in the winner-take-all primary. Rubio is waging his own last-stand battle in Florida on March 15. 

Overall, however, polls show Ohio's front-runners to be neck and neck

"We've gotta remind Ohioans why they like [Kasich], what they like about him," Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges told CNN on Friday. 

Despite his struggle at the primary polls – Kasich has not won a single state, and holds just 63 delegates to Mr. Trump's 460 — Kasich's decades of experience and his "adult in the room" demeanor during an unprecedentedly boorish campaign have won him dozens of endorsements: from Ohio newspapers, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Michael Reagan, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few. "Go win this darn thing," Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer told the Governor. 

But the job ahead of Kasich's endorsers, and his campaign, is to convince Ohioans of their responsibility: If the Governor fails to win his own state, he's said he'll drop out of the race, ahead of a slew of Midwestern and Western states whose Republicans might be friendlier to him than Trump- and Cruz-heavy early voting states. Senator Cruz now has 370 delegates, while Rubio has 163; 1,237 are needed to win the party nomination. 

Stopping Trump is no longer a matter of winning the 1,237 outright, but simply blocking Trump's ability to do so, forcing a brokered convention in July.

If Kasich fails to win Ohio's 66 delegates, or Rubio fails to win Florida's 99, the chances of preventing a Trump nomination are all but nil, many pundits have predicted. 

And the high stakes have made Kasich, who has emphasized a high-road approach all along, increase the attacks on Trump. It remains to be seen whether voters will see his rebukes as responsible truth-telling or a descent into strategic negativity.

After violence erupted at Trump rallies over the weekend, Kasich condemned the campaigner's "toxic atmosphere."

"There is no place for a national leader to prey on the fears of people who live in our great country," he said in Sharonville, Ohio.

The campaign is also counting on a slew of Sunday TV appearances, and Super PAC New Day for America, to eke out an Ohio win — and from there, to convince national voters that Kasich's policy record, conservative on issues like abortion but also demonstrating across-the-aisle appeal, could win over a wider array of voters than his competition in both parties.

Asked if he thought Ohio could help slow Trump's momentum, Kasich answered confidently.

“I absolutely believe that," he said Saturday, according to ABC. "Ohio always seems to be the geographical center of the political universe." 

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