Westerville, Ohio — “Do the right thing tomorrow,” Mitt Romney implored a crowd Monday.
It was 24-hours before Republicans would go to the polls in Ohio, a state that has taken on increased importance as perhaps the final place where Republicans who oppose frontrunner Donald Trump can deny him the delegates he needs to emerge uncontested as the nominee.
The right thing, Romney meant, was to vote for the man standing next to him: Ohio governor John Kasich.
There are four candidates remaining in the Republican primary. But in Ohio, the choice has become binary: Kasich or Trump, the only two candidates seriously contending the state. And Kasich, who has said he will end his campaign if he does not emerge triumphant today, has been all too happy to reinforce the idea of a binary choice. In Ohio today, as Kasich tells it, it is not a choice between two candidates or two policies. It is a choice between right and wrong; between dark and light; between putting forward an image the country can be proud of and putting forward one that will cause consternation the world over.
“The whole world is watching us frankly holding their breath to see what we’re all about,” he said in Westerville Monday evening.
Kasich has dubbed himself the “prince of light and hope” in this presidential race, and in Trump, he has found his dastardly foil. The specter of Trump hangs over Kasich’s campaign events Sunday and Monday, an ever-present danger that, in Kasich and Romney’s telling, only Ohio Republicans have the power stop. The villain of the piece is never mentioned by name, only alluded to.
“I watched a presidential campaign rally with people slugging one another. And I looked at those images and I thought to myself, this is not how we fix America. We don’t fix America by demonizing people, we don’t fix America by dividing people, we fix America … by bringing people together,” Kasich said in Westerville, speaking of the violence that has characterized Trump campaign events over the past week.
Praising Romney for saving the Olympics, Kasich said for America to mess up the Olympics “would almost be as bad as people slugging it out at the campaign rally.”
“Think of the images that have been broadcast around the world about the way we’re picking a president,” Kasich lamented.
“All of us have somewhat of a responsibility to be a role model to somebody else,” he said at the Spread Eagle Tavern in Hanoverton Sunday night.
Pursuant to that, he promised: “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”
After months of having to introduce himself to an unfamiliar electorate, Kasich is back on home turf. The home state governor with as 62 percent approval rating needs no introduction, though he gets one everywhere he goes — from Romney, senator Rob Portman, former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, or Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham, to name a few. He talks up his record as Ohio governor, to be sure, but his campaign events Sunday and Monday were as much about the people around him as himself.
The first part of each speech he gave was devoted to praising the person or persons who introduced him. Romney, he says, is a job creator, and everything would have been different — and better — if he had been elected in 2012. Tressel, who left his coaching position after he was found to have violated NCAA rules to keep his players eligible despite academic and other problems, has found a new home as the President of Youngstown University. Tressel, says Kasich, is an example of pulling yourself up again after a setback.
But it is also about the people in attendance, the Ohio voters who have the power to hand him the victory. Here in a high school gym in Westerville, “just a stone’s throw” from Kasich’s house, the Ohio governor — who had noted at past events that he wasn’t quite sure where he had to head off to, only that he was campaigning all over the state — seemed noticeably emotional to be back near his home, standing on stage next to his wife and two daughters.
Saying that Ohio needs to send a signal to the world, Kasich said in Westerville — a suburb of Columbus near his own home: “there is nobody better than can make that argument than the people I grew up with, my neighbors.”
That his neighbors will give him a win is no sure thing. Polls in the days leading up to the primary have shown Kasich tied with or slightly ahead of Trump. But if Kasich does win, what happens next is less clear. The Ohio governor, who trails behind the three other candidates in delegates, openly acknowledges that does not have a path to win the nomination before the convention. “I may go to the convention with more delegates than any of them,” he told reporters in Youngstown Monday morning. “But probably not enough to win.”
Kasich simultaneously proclaims he is “done making predictions” about his future in the race, and predicts he will “do well” in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maryland.
“And then we’re gonna hitch up the covered wagon and we’re going west. We’re gonna climb the Appalachians. We’re gonna get out to the Rockies,” Kasich tells reporters.
“I’m painting a beautiful picture here,” Kasich cracks. Indeed, it’s a rosy forecast, and one that hangs entirely on whether he first manages to top Trump.