HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — John Kasich launched a full on, multi-pronged criticism of Donald Trump last Thursday, calling him “unmoored and untethered” and “unprepared to be president” after the GOP front-runner stirred up another few days of controversy.
The next day, on Friday, he offered his clearest critique yet of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, telling reporters that Cruz “has no record.”
“His record is shutting down the government and making everybody he works with upset,” the Ohio governor said.
Then, while talking to reporters on Long Island, N.Y. on Monday, Kasich referred to Cruz as “Sen. Ted, the smear artist,” referring to ads the Cruz campaign ran against him in Wisconsin. “We have one guy with no experience and the other guy who’s experience amounts to shutting down the government and calling the Majority Leader a liar,” Kasich later added.
Kasich, who has earned far less delegates than either Trump or Cruz, for months refrained from engaging any of his rivals directly, even when he was consistently prodded. But he has slowly moved closer to directly taking on his Republican opponents for the last several weeks, transitioning from a candidate who persistently resisted ever mentioning any of their names to one who feels more comfortable making direct and clear contrasts.
Last Thursday, just five blocks away from Trump Tower in New York City, and in the center and the glare of the nation’s media capital, Kasich seized the opportunity to emphasize a shift after the real estate mogul’s recent comments about abortion, NATO, nuclear weapons, the Supreme Court, and the Geneva Conventions.
“He's not prepared to be president of the United States," Kasich said.
“The last 24 hours have been extraordinary, to say the least,” he later told reporters during a press conference in Philadelphia. “Mr. Trump, I think, you say a trifecta — this is more than a trifecta. This is a five element that he did within the last 24 hours where he's really been way off kilter.”
It started with an early-morning statement, and then Kasich repeated his criticism across multiple TV networks, and tripled and quadrupled down in two separate press conferences in New York and Philadelphia.
Kasich proudly boasts that he does not go negative, getting some of his biggest town hall applause lines when he declares, “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.” But while he says he will never get into personal attacks or “in the mud,” he has always maintained that policy differences are fair game.
Kasich’s extensive remarks about Trump made headlines, yet the governor’s decision to call out Trump and Cruz in recent days were just the latest in a culmination of statements from a candidate increasingly more confident about vocalizing his discomfort with views of his opponents.
In the fall, when Kasich’s poll numbers were tanking, he bemoaned the election as “crazy” at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, declaring he “had it with these people.” A day later at the CNBC debate in Colorado, he dismissed Trump and Ben Carson as inexperienced with “fantasy” ideas.
Kasich’s campaign Twitter account engaged in a slew of anti-Trump attacks, and in December, his campaign launched a mock website where Trump chose Putin as his running mate.
But after that, Kasich moved to stay out the fray for several months, largely resisting daily attempts from both journalists and voters to knock his rivals or even offer up any pointed policy distinctions. When voters at New Hampshire town halls asked him to help them make their decision and differentiate himself from the other governors in the race, he declined, and would only talk about his own record. The night he finished second in the New Hampshire primary, he asserted, “the light overcame the darkness of negative campaigning.”
That night, Kasich spoke with a small group of reporters on his plane from New Hampshire to South Carolina about why he felt his positive message helped propel him to his second place finish. “I’m starting to really think we’re on to something,” he said. “I’m starting to really think that the positive nature of a campaign could be very effective. I’m starting to think it could be true. We’re going to see.”
A little over a week later, on February 19, a woman at Kasich’s town hall in Columbia, South Carolina, wondered how he could address the nation’s “moral compass” when the country was willing to “put trust in a man who gets more out of making fun of other candidates than really, truly embracing the issues.”
Kasich jokingly responded, “What, do you think I should get on the stage and just like tackle him? You know, that ain’t going to work. He weighs more than I do, OK.”
“But I do believe in the intelligence of the American voter,” he added. “Some people are going to vote for that because that’s their way of saying, ‘the system sucks.”
The first, real initial shift where Kasich moved closer to taking on his rivals came a week after the South Carolina primary and days before Super Tuesday, when Kasich was so upset about what he heard that he felt a responsibility to kick off his town hall addressing it. Speaking to a crowd of voters on February 28 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Kasich forcefully called out Donald Trump for not disassociating himself quickly enough with David Duke in a CNN interview.
“I don’t understand it, Donald Trump refused to disassociate himself and condemn white supremacists,” Kasich said. “Every day it’s another thing… that’s just horrific, we don’t have any place for white supremacists in the United States of America and it just doesn’t make any sense to me and he really needs to make this position clear and he out to do it quickly.”
Trump later blamed the situation on a bad earpiece during the interview.
But when Kasich spoke to reporters the next day, it was suggested that he “condemned” Trump with those comments, and Kasich asserted that the use of the word “condemned” was “pretty harsh.”
“Of course I completely disagree with him,” he said, but “I’m not in the business of condemnation of most people.”
Then, as violence at Trump’s rallies began to make headlines and videos emerged of protesters getting punched, Kasich dodged a direct response to the situation when asked about it after a town hall in Moraine, Ohio on March 11. “Well, we don't want to have violence at any rally, we don't have them at our rallies,” he flatly stated. “I just can't comment on what the heck has happened at his rallies I've never been to one, don't expect to be going.”
But later that night, violence erupted in Chicago after Trump’s scheduled event was cancelled. By the next day, seeing the protest images on television were enough for Kasich to stage a press conference just to address them. In front of a group of reporters in Sharonville, Ohio, Kasich partly blamed Trump for the atmosphere that led to the unrest. “Donald Trump has created a toxic environment, and a toxic environment has allowed his supporters and those who sometimes seek confrontation to come together in violence,” Kasich said. “There is no place for this, there is no place for a national leader to pray on the fears of people who live in our great country.”
Later that day after a town hall in Heath, Ohio, when asked by NBC News about whether families in Ohio should feel safe bringing their children to Trump rallies, Kasich said that he would not bring his own daughters to one since “it’s too crazy.”
The day of the critical Ohio primary, on March 15th, Kasich offered his clearest preview yet of how he planned to take on Donald Trump as the race narrowed, voicing concern over what he saw in an anti-Trump campaign ad that used some of Trump’s quotes about women.
“Running a positive campaign has been really, really good and I think my neighbors have been proud of me,” he told reporters gathered after he cast his ballot in his hometown of Westerville. “I know my daughters are and my wife. I will, however forced going forward, to talk about some of the deep concerns I have about the way this campaign has been run by some others - by one other in particular. But today is not the day to do that. I've been very concerned. I just saw a commercial, I guess it was last night, of these comments that were made about women. I have two daughters. They see this stuff. What do you think they think? I'll have more to say about that.”
Kasich claimed that morning that he was not aware of many of Trump’s controversial comments until recently before that. “I really was not. I really wasn't,” he said. “I'm not really paying that much attention to that…You know things move really fast in a presidential campaign. You don't really focus on - I focus on what I'm going to be doing at my next event. I'm focused on who's winning the golf tournament that I'm interested in. That's really it. I don't focus on what somebody else is doing in some other campaign. So it was really the first time that my eyes were really opened - which meant I was probably like a normal voter, to be honest with you.”
Kasich took an opportunity to launch a blunt critique of Trump on March 17th, when he went on a four-piece Twitter storm berating Trump for predicting there could be “riots” at the Republican National Convention if Trump was denied the nomination, calling the assertion “unacceptable language”and an “implicit acceptance of violence.”
Kasich piled on that afternoon in a phone interview with ABC News: “You know, he’s not running for the presidency of WWE, he’s running for president of the United States.” Speaking to reporters in Orem, Utah the next day, he added that Trump’s prediction was “an incendiary comment.”
The tragic attacks in Brussels only accentuated the opportunity for Kasich to differentiate himself from his opponents. Speaking with Fox News Radio on March 29th, Kasich referred to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States and his statements that he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS, calling it “the most ridiculous outlined foreign policy I’ve ever heard.”
Kasich’s critiques of Trump have ebbed and flowed with what Trump was in trouble for on the trail, as the governor noted during his MSNBC town hall in Queens, New York, on March 30th. He told host Chuck Todd he would have fired Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski if he were in the same position. “Now I heard there's a video,” Kasich said of Lewandowski’s altercation with a reporter. “I would have gotten rid of him. Period.”
“Sometimes it's a roller coaster is the way I see him,” Kasich later added about Trump. “Sometimes he calms down. In the last debate we had he was very calm. And, then these crazy things start happening.”
At the MSNBC town hall, Kasich also took issue with Ted Cruz’s call to bomb ISIS until “sand glows in the dark,” and Cruz’s proposal to patrol Muslim neighborhoods, he said, was “very disturbing to me because it pulls the country apart,” a sentiment he echoed at his town halls in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Amid Kasich’s critiques of Trump, he maintains that he can appeal and relate to those who support him. In his New York City press conference, he looked into the camera and made a direct plea for those voters to come over to his side instead: “While the person that you have favored continues to move in an unmoored and untethered fashion, I understand that at times he’s the vessel for your frustration. I want to offer myself up as a vessel.”
“When I see a number of these things that I have been said, I have to say something about it,” Kasich also added. “If I don’t say something about it, I really feel as a public official that I’m not doing my job... there are times that I have to speak out.”
On Long Island on Monday, Kasich warned reporters that he doesn’t think they should take his statements as changing course, but affirming that he’ll turn things around if sees something that warrants it.
“I'm speaking out at times,” he said. “So don't take this that I'm somehow going in another direction. Look at what I say when I'm talking to voters. It’s a very positive message and it’s a message of vision. But I'm also not going to sit around and have people whack and me. I'm just going to go run away? I'm not a scared little boy.”
Then in front of a large crowd at The Paramount in Huntington that night, he defended his tune: “I want to tell you something -- I'm not marshmallow or a pincushion. You want to take a whack at me, let's get it on.”