Unfiltered Political News

Cruz, Kasich wage Cold War

Ted Cruz says John Kasich has already lost his shot to be the next president. Kasich thinks Cruz never had one to begin with. But while each thinks the other is destined for failure, they also both fear the damage their rival will do before bowing out.

It’s a strange chess match between the last two Republican candidates not named Donald Trump. They’re not running ads against each other. They barely acknowledge each other on the stump. But below the surface, they’re each anxious that the other is undermining carefully crafted strategies to overtake Trump. Cruz is scrambling for every delegate he can, hoping he can cut into Trump’s lead and arrive at the GOP convention in possession with the biggest pile of chips. And in that effort, Kasich is an obstacle — he’s mathematically blocked from an outright win yet still threatens to siphon anti-Trump votes from Cruz.

“Every day John Kasich stays in the race benefits Donald Trump,” Cruz said Wednesday morning on CNN.

“There’s one spoiler in the race: John Kasich,” Jason Johnson, Cruz’s chief strategist, told reporters following Cruz’s watch party in Houston Tuesday night. “He has that right. If Republican voters are looking for someone who can actually win a majority of delegates to become the legitimate nominee to represent the Republican Party against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, it’s a two-man race.”

Kasich’s theory is markedly different: while the math may be against him in the primary, he thinks it’s equally stacked against Trump and Cruz in November. “I’m the only one who can win a general election,” he declared at a town hall at Villanova University in Pennsylvania on Wednesday. “These folks aren’t going to win a general election.”

Kasich’s case to be the Republican nominee for president boils down to an earnest belief: delegates at the Republican convention care less about honoring the party’s voters’ wishes than they do about beating Hillary Clinton. And under that rubric, Kasich argues his best bet is to hold on for the party’s convention in Cleveland, and hope that the party sees it his way when he gets there.

“No one can coalesce delegates around a candidate more than the threat of Hillary Clinton,” said a senior adviser to Kasich’s super PAC, New Day for America, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “Hillary Clinton, if she’s smart, is going to run her campaign against Trump right now. It’s going to be a character campaign. The best character juxtaposition to Trump is Gov. Kasich.”

The adviser said the PAC is beginning to collect on $5 million to $7 million in commitments made on the condition that Kasich prevail in Ohio, which he did Tuesday in a campaign-saving victory that won him all 66 of the state’s delegates.

Charlie Black, a veteran of the Republican convention process tapped by Kasich this week on a volunteer basis to advise on all matters of politics. Black predicted Kasich could enter the convention with as many as 500 delegates and may have a shot at collecting many of Marco Rubio’s delegates, if Rubio releases them early. (Rubio this week called Cruz, not Kasich, the lone conservative in the race).

And Kasich’s camp bristles at the mention of him playing Cruz “spoiler.” “

“This has nothing to do with being a spoiler and everything to with the Cruz campaign covering up the fact that they have no viable path to 1237 and they are getting nervous because they know Gov. Kasich’s positive message is finally being heard and is breaking through,” said spokesman Mike Schrimpf. “Most importantly, a Trump or Cruz nomination would spoil Republican hopes of winning the White House in November.”

Still, for now, the advantage rests with Cruz. Kasich’s stellar night Tuesday was not without clouds: Even with Ohio included, he has 143 delegates — two-dozen-plus fewer than Marco Rubio did when he decided to drop out of the race. With just over 1,000 delegates remaining after Tuesday’s contests, and with Republicans requiring a candidate to net 1,237 delegates to win the nomination outright.

Of course, Kasich’s play has long been a contested convention, but he got bad news on that front on Tuesday as well. Advisers to Trump and Cruz told POLITICO they’ll use their leverage over the convention rules committee to lock Kasich out of any contested convention.

That’s not to say that Cruz doesn’t face trouble ahead as well. Underlying Kasich’s theory is the argument that Cruz’s best days of delegate-gathering are behind him. Cruz was best positioned to compete in the South, which stacked its primaries early on the calendar. Now, the race has shifted to the Northeast and Midwest, where Kasich believes he is better able to vie for delegates.

Cruz is running an intense operation to ensure that delegates supportive of Cruz make it to the convention, and his team plans to play hard in the Northeast and other later-voting states, seeing opportunities to consolidate the conservative vote even in more traditionally liberal bastions, as they did, for example, in Maine, a caucus state Cruz won.

Cruz’s entire campaign is process-oriented, all the way up to Cruz himself, who personally talks about the delegate count on the stump. His team has worked the delegate process at a granular level, and Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters Tuesday that at a minimum, they expected to enter the convention with a delegate lead. He’s also hoping to win the endorsement of Republicans across the country who see no other viable alternative to Trump.

On Wednesday, Cruz got a boost in that column when South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley backed him after previously supporting Marco Rubio. And Thursday offered one of the most unlikely endorsements of 2016: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham threw his support to Cruz, putting aside his recent distaste for the Texan and calling him “the best alternative” to Donald Trump. Graham will headline a fundraiser for Cruz on Monday.

And while Cruz’s team may fret about Kasich getting in their way, they have no immediate plans to mount negative attacks against him, and the vast majority of their attention is trained on Trump.

“If you think we’re ceding New York because Donald Trump hails from Queens and lives in Manhattan, that would be a mistake,” said Johnson, once again ignoring Kasich.

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