ATKINSON, N.H. — Supporters of John Kasich are confident that late breaking Republican voters will either head his way, or toward Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
John E. Sununu, the former New Hampshire senator and Kasich's chief strategist in the state, said during an interview here that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are stalled.
Only Kasich, who has staked his entire White House campaign on a strong finish in New Hampshire, is positioned to separate from the pack and score with the state's notoriously late deciding GOP voters, Sununu said. Kasich is trying to replicate Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 miracle New Hampshire finish to vault himself into contention.
"The simple question is, where are the voters that make the decision in the last week — where are they going to go?" Sununu told the Washington Examiner. "Frankly, they're not going for Donald Trump or Jeb Bush. If you haven't made up your mind for those candidates that have been so well known, you're not going for them now ... They're going to John Kasich, and perhaps to Marco Rubio."
"We're right where we want to be, we're going to win a lion's share of those late deciding voters," Sununu added. "We're within one or two points of Marco, and that puts us in a position to run a strong second or even sneak out a win."
Public opinion polls have shifted rapidly since Monday's Iowa caucuses. Trump, the New York celebrity businessman, still leads big in New Hampshire, but there are signs of slippage. Rubio has turned his surprisingly strong third place finish in Iowa into second place in the Granite State in most surveys conducted after Monday. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who won the caucuses, is running third here despite not really being a good fit for the state. Polls say Kasich is running in fourth.
Over the course of his career in Congress and in Columbus, Kasich has been a conservative budget and taxes hawk, although he did embrace Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. But in New Hampshire, he has charted a path to victory that rests on appealing to moderate Republicans and registered independents, who are permitted to participate in the Democratic or GOP primaries. He has de-emphasized his partisan positions and positioned himself as a centrist problem solver.
That was evident in Atkinson Friday morning. Asked by a member of the audience at his town hall meeting if he would support national right-to-work legislation, Kasich said no. The governor had previously pushed to strip labor unions of power and turn Ohio into a right-to-work state — the policy is popular with Republicans — but after losing at the ballot box, Kasich reversed course. He's no longer interested in fighting the unions.
"I've told the unions, if you work cooperatively with us, I'm fine. We don't have labor problems. But I also have told them if we start having a lot of labor unrest, then we've got to revisit the whole issue," Kasich said. "As a leader, you don't need to kick a dog that's doing fine and sleeping ... If somebody says they want to go around picking fights with everybody, and you think that's a good thing to do, then you're not going to be for me."
"I'll also tell you that the operating engineers and building trades, many of those people, you know what they are? Middle class. And so, l like to have a strong middle class," Kasich added.
Kasich, underfunded compared to front-runners like Cruz, Rubio and Trump, is hoping to replicate McCain's shoestring success from eight years ago. McCain campaigned relentlessly in New Hampshire in 2008, using his "straight-talk" approach at town hall meetings to win over Republicans and independents. It worked, and sprung McCain toward the nomination. Kasich, who employs some of the Arizona senator's old advisors, is trying to do the same.
Who are Kasich voters? The mix of about 75 who braved a steady snow storm to see the governor during an appearance at the Atkinson Country Club were mostly middle-aged or seniors; many were undecided, and among their other finalists were Bush, Trump and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Some voters were won over, others weren't.
"I haven't made up my mind for who I am going to vote. But he didn't convince me today," said Michael Holland, 70, a registered Republican from nearby Hempstead.
"I'm in the process of deciding between Bush and Kasich," said Sandy Cannon, 58, a teacher and registered Republican from Atkinson. "I like Bush because of his record in Florida ... I like the fact that [Kasich's] not talking about immigration and building a wall. I like that he has some good ideas, he's been around awhile."
Len Hall, 64, is another New Hampshire Republican who was on the fence between Kasich and Bush. Kasich won him over, in part because he was a fresh face. Hall left the town hall with one of the governor's yard signs tucked under his arm.
"First of all, he's a governor not a senator, and governors tend to make decisions, senators don't," Hall said. "I think maybe I was just ready to get away from the old school and move over to the new school."