GROSSE POINTE WOODS, Mich. — For 15 minutes, as he paced around a tight circle in the gym of University Liggett School, you could have mistaken Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) for a motivational speaker. More than a hundred students had filed in for his town hall, and in the place of a stump speech, there was the lesson he learned from lobbying Richard Nixon for a meeting (“always push”), tales of his Pennsylvania home town (“everyone was blue collar”), and some eyeball-to-eyeball discussion of human dignity.
“You are special,” Kasich told one student, then another. “Very special. And you have a purpose. You see, the Lord made all of you special.”
Kasich’s media retinue has grown in the past few days, and before the polls opened in Michigan, he was closing less as a candidate for president and more as a family friend. In Grosse Pointe, a wealthy suburb of Detroit that tended to reward moderate Republicans, he gave personal advice about education (two years of credits at a community college could save money) and dealing with loss, interspersed with a pledge to arm the Ukrainians and pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.
The goal was simple — to “rise” in Michigan’s primary (he did not say “win”) and become the Donald Trump/Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) alternative that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had hoped to be. Michigan, with the rampant crossover voting that had rescued candidates like Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the past, was his best shot at resetting the Cruz-pushed narrative that Republicans were down to two choices.
“Rubio’s juvenile antics kind of sealed the deal for me – his war of words with Trump,” said Anne Dellair, a 66-year old retired educator.
“I’m hopeful that the other candidates are burying themselves with all the negativity,” said Carla Fluent, 47, the membership director at the local country club.
Few people here think that the American Research Group’s survey of Michigan — which shows Kasich surging ahead of Trump — reflects reality. But a Sunday poll conducted for Fox 2 Detroit found Trump’s Michigan support slipping from 47 percent to 42 percent since the Detroit debate. Cruz had moved up 4.3 points, to 19.3 percent support; Kasich had moved up 6.6 points, to 19.6 percent. A Monday poll conducted by Monmouth University found a similar pattern, with Trump falling even faster, into the mid-30s, buoyed (and perhaps rescued) by the fact that 13 percent of the electorate had voted already.
There was more evidence of a Trump fade in private polling conducted by Republican strategist John Yob. In a rolling survey of 464 people, nearly 50 percent of voters whose minds were made up more than two weeks ago broke for Trump; just 21.4 percent went for Cruz, and just 19.2 percent went for Kasich. But voters who had decided in the last two weeks were breaking for Kasich — 44.3 percent of them. Just 21.2 percent were choosing Trump. And voters making up their minds in the last few days, since the Detroit debate, were splitting 41.7 percent for Kasich, 26.2 percent for Cruz, and 19.1 percent for Trump.
If Kasich cannot win Michigan outright, a clear second place and a Rubio collapse to fourth would be plan B. And Kasich’s next 24 hours are focused on that, with four stops across southeast and central Michigan. The dream: Michigan as a sequel to New Hampshire, where an evanescing Rubio campaign and appeal to independents allowed Kasich to win the silver.
Cruz, who won the endorsement of libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) quit the primary, did not announce any visits to Michigan until Monday morning. He planned a drop-in rally at a Grand Rapids restaurant for Monday night.
“I’ve built a strong base of support with constitutional conservatives, libertarians, independents, and others who aren’t happy with Washington,” said Amash. “My focus has been on reaching out to my supporters — especially the biggest activists in the area — to make sure they know I’m behind Ted.”
Cruz may also benefit from the departure of Ben Carson, a Detroit native who was strongest in the state’s more conservative western counties. Slowly, possibly too slowly, they were shaking off disappointment over the Cruz supporters in Iowa who’d told caucus-goers that Carson had already quit the race.
“There is a breed of traditional conservative who wants to elevate public discourse,” said Rev. Dr. Richard Zeile, a member of the state board of education who’d endorsed Trump but moved to Cruz. “We tend to be concerned more with social values, with the family as engine of prosperity, we don’t hear any of that from Trump. In home, we see behavior unacceptable for our children. But Trump has visceral appeal.”
There is nothing visceral about the version of John Kasich that is closing out his Michigan campaign. In Grosse Pointe Woods, his policy arguments were wrapped in as much cotton candy as he could afford. A skeptical voter from New Zealand, concerned with America’s campaign finance system, was told that the candidate didn’t like it “when billionaires can just buy elections.” Steve Glover, 52, who asked Kasich about trade policy, got a friendly explanation of how “if we decide to have a trade war with everybody, prices go up.” After the speech, Kasich found Glover in the crowd to tell him he was “sorry” that there “was no easy answer” to the question.
“I was a Rubio fan before, but I’ve decided on Kasich,” said the satisfied Glover. “I’m still concerned about his positions on campaign finance and trade, but he’s the best choice. Him, or Bernie Sanders.”
Glover was not the only voter deciding between Kasich and the socialist senator from Vermont. Not even a discursive Kasich joke about Sanders — “It’s easy to say things, but we can’t be taking economic advice from Ben and Jerry” — put off Melanie Aberantes, 21, who planned to vote for either Sanders or Kasich depending on which vote would count more. Kasich’s toughest questioner, who asked if the governor would stand for the rights of gay people to be served just as Lyndon Johnson had stood for the rights of black people, also said he was considering a Sanders vote. Kasich tried to pull him over by portraying the religious liberty fight as one good people could agree not to have.
“Don’t make laws until you think you need to,” he said. “Let’s take a deep breath and see if we can get along… if common sense doesn’t prevail we can pass a law.”
Kasich campaigned in basically the same way in a morning stop in Monroe, a city just minutes from Ohio, where a community college’s atrium was filled to bursting Among his new fans were.Bob and Sandy Keck,”diehard Trumpsters,” convinced for months that the real estate mogul-turned-candidate could give Washington the scouring it had earned.
“We were trying to convert people to Trump, and we still like him, especially on immigration,” said Bob Keck, 59. “But the last debate, and the last rotation of TV interviews, converted us to Kasich.”
Some friendly questions spared Kasich from having to alienate anyone. One woman got up only to thank the Ohian for “being a gentleman.” Another man had just one question, about how Kasich avoided the slapfights of the televised debates.
“How do you stay out of the mud with those guys?” he asked. “It’s just terrible.”
“Let me ask you a question,” asked Kasich. “Do you ever have a big family dinner like Thanksgiving? Do people get in an argument?”
“No, never,” said the questioner.
Kasich barreled ahead, treating the answer like a bit of deadpan humor.
“The smart person never gets in the argument,” he said.