Republican presidential candidate John Kasich said he felt "gratified" by his surprise runner-up finish in New Hampshire but knows that will make him a bigger target for attacks heading into South Carolina.
The Ohio governor's solid showing stunned some observers — including supporters of Sen. Marco Rubio, who'd hung his hat on taking second place in the primary.
Emotions ran high in the Kasich camp as the results rolled in. The candidate huddled with his wife and advisers to watch the returns, telling NBC News that he "always felt" he would finish second but that it still "feels good."
"We labored in obscurity for months," he said. "I think we'll be one of the ... stories coming out of New Hampshire."
Kasich was right — his strong finish means no candidate left New Hampshire as the sole "establishment" alternative to Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz.
Republicans now will have to take a serious look at Kasich — who ran as a champion of bipartisanship, good governance and neighborly compassion in strong contrast to Trump.
"I'm gratified by it for sure," Kasich told reporters aboard a charter plane bound for Charleston, South Carolina. "I think it's fantastic."
Kasich credited the "positive nature" of his campaign and said he'll do his best to "stay positive" going forward — recounting how he told staffers to cherish the "once in a lifetime" experience going into the primary.
Still, he acknowledged the "long road" ahead of him and the need to "raise more money" given other candidates' deep pockets.
Kasich said he expects that money to be used in negative ads against him — and that he's "prepared" for what comes his way.
"I know we can’t just go through this like falling off the turnip truck and saying that everything is just going to be positive, because I’m going to have to respond to some of this stuff,” he acknowledged. "But I’m starting to really think we’re on to something."