MANCHESTER, N.H. — In the final hours before New Hampshire voters trudged to the polls, there were rumors that Ohio Gov. John Kasich was surging.
While nobody expected him to knock off front-runner Donald Trump, the word on the street was that unnamed campaigns' internal polling had Kasich in second place "with a solid cushion." The public polls were all over the place, but the consensus was that the race for second is where the action is.
"The media here tonight is all like 'Kasich's run a positive campaign. Can that work?'" the governor said Monday night. "If we do really well here, they're gonna study it."
Four years ago at this time, the buzz was about a Jon Huntsman surge. He wasn't expected to bump off the 2012 front-runner Mitt Romney, but the thinking was he might make a play for second place, giving his longshot campaign a chance.
The similarities between Kasich and Huntsman don't end there. Along with John McCain, all three mavericks ran to the left of the national Republican electorate but appealed to independents who can vote in New Hampshire's semi-open primary and moderate Republicans who still remain thick on the ground in New England. Consequently, all three rested their fortunes on the Granite State. All three were advised by John Weaver.
"Misty eyed about attending my last ever NH primary town hall," Weaver tweeted Monday night, saying that Kasich did it the "right way, from the ground up. With integrity."
All three candidates were once viewed as more conservative. McCain was Barry Goldwater's Senate successor and a 1980s Reaganite. He endorsed Phil Gramm over Bob Dole in 1996. Huntsman signed strong pro-life legislation as Utah's governor.
Kasich arguably has the most conservative record of them all: he helped deliver the first balanced federal budget since 1969, the biggest tax cuts since the Reagan administration and welfare reform as chairman of the House Budget Committee, before taking on public sector unions in his first year as governor — including the police unions Scott Walker left untouched in Wisconsin.
Unlike Walker, however, he lost his fight to reform public sector collective bargaining. Afterward he began an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like tack to the center, which culminated in him ramming through Obamacare's Medicaid expansion despite claiming to favor the healthcare law's repeal.
Even worse, to many conservatives, was the rhetoric Kasich used in justifying his decision. He seemed to imply there was something vaguely un-Christian about advocating limited government. He has continued on that track as a presidential candidate, frequently ranting about the impracticality of many proposals popular among conservatives and saying the party should offer something new.
At an event in New Hampshire Monday, Kasich didn't correct a woman who asked why she should vote for him in the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Kasich said his porridge was just right, while Sanders is too hot and Clinton is too cold. (Although he was clearly talking about the general election.)
"You know what? I'm an independent guy, nobody tells me what to do, but I'm not way out here," he added. "I mean, Bernie's a socialist. That ain't gonna happen."
The Ohio governor is certainly the quirkiest of Weaver's bunch. He alternates between being giddy and cranky, between Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd and policy wonkery.
"How'd you get roped into this?" Kasich asked a teenager at this Monday night town hall. "My dad is your Michigan director," the youngster replied. Kasich laughed, but then noted he needed to win Michigan.
New Hampshire has helped keep Kasich on the main Republican debate stage throughout the campaign. Even when he has lagged behind in national polls, Kasich has been in contention for a top three spot in the first primary state.
It's not easy. Trump has had the top spot nailed down for months. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have also been stronger in New Hampshire than in most other states. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are also competing for a top three finish.
The New Hampshire or bust strategy has a mixed track record. McCain won the New Hampshire primary in 2000 and 2008. The first victory merely set up him to get crushed in the closed Republican primaries and more conservative states by George W. Bush, but the second turned his campaign around and set him on a path to the nomination.
Huntsman's surge never fully materialized. He ran a respectable third place in New Hampshire in 2012, but was well behind Ron Paul as well as Mitt Romney. It wasn't enough for him to continue.
In fact, even McCain 2008 might be the exception that proves the rule. He was able to revive his beleaguered campaign only after Rudy Giuliani, the national front-runner, skipped the early states, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson all split the conservative vote, and enough Republicans returned to their tradition of voting for the runner-up from the previous round of competitive primaries.
Kasich's future after New Hampshire is unclear even if he does well in the primary, although he has said he won't continue if he does poorly. "If we don't do well, we're not going to be dragging around like some band of minstrels who beg people to come to our show," he said. Then he added the kicker that annoys conservatives: "If the conservative Republican Party doesn't care about people who live in the shadows, we will fail, we will have missed our calling."
"I'm going to miss you here," Kasich told New Hampshire voters Monday evening. Whatever happens in the primary, he probably will.