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Is John Kasich the GOP media darling who could finally win?

Not only has Republican strategist John Weaver seen this movie before, he has producer credits in the trilogy.

As the plot unfolds, a GOP presidential candidate with crossover appeal and a knack for speaking outside his "ideological zone" wins princely mainstream media praise and pundit love. It's the ending to the story that has tended to fall flat.

In 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain, starring pluckily as "The Maverick," parted with Weaver midway through the primary; winning the Republican nomination with a reshuffled leadership team; and then getting trounced by President Barack Obama in the general election.

In 2012, the presidential campaign of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.—with Weaver serving as its top strategist—had Team Obama biting its nails from the early going, but proved unable to connect with conservatives and flopped in the primary.

Now comes Weaver's threequel—currently playing at select theaters in New Hampshire—which features Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the former congressman, Fox News host and Lehman Brothers executive, who is trying to parlay his own bit of recent good press into something more than his preceding center-right media darlings could.

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich greets supporters at a Labor Day parade on Sept. 7, 2015, in Milford, N.H.
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate John Kasich greets supporters at a Labor Day parade on Sept. 7, 2015, in Milford, N.H.

The immediate next goal in that saga would be a second, headline-grabbing debate performance come Wednesday night, when the Republican contenders round up at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Last month, Kasich received glowing praise with his performance in the first GOP presidential debate, where his measured, open-hearted response to a question about gay marriage captured a political press surfeited by a summer of Donald Trump. Slate called Kasich's comments "gracious"; The Washington Post described them as "touching"; and The New York Times instantly score him a winner.

Following this up with steady, gaffe-free work on the stump, Kasich has scaled to second in the latest New Hampshire polls. This, despite a very late entry into the race, which has given the Ohio governor comparatively little national ID, money to burn or room for error.

"As long as he is not on the cover of Sports Illustrated, when you are running a campaign against people with a lot more money or dynastic support, it doesn't hurt to get as much media as you can," Weaver told CNBC.com.

"In this cycle, it has its advantages to Gov. Kasich," said Matt David, an advisor to the pro-Kasich super PAC New Day for America who previously served with Weaver on the Huntsman campaign. "One of our biggest challenges is name ID, so anyone who is covering Kasich and covering him favorably is increasing his name ID."

But the press' assessments have not all been so welcome: Since Kasich's announcement, the campaign has faced repeated comparisons to Huntsman's failed effort, in no small part because of the familiar faces on both campaigns.

Although careful not to speak ill of their former client, Weaver et al. are relying on the supposition that Kasich is a more battle-tested political animal who can appeal to the base.

"You are talking about someone who has been in politics for a very long time, has faced very difficult elections in a swing state like Ohio, faced a couple elections to become governor and won a pretty convincing re-election," said David.


GOP ad-maker Fred Davis, another Huntsman alum who now serves as lead media consultant for New Day for America, called the Kasich-Huntsman comparison "one of the great fallacies in reporting today."

"They are not remotely similar. Enormous differences in upbringing, in work styles, in experience, etc.," Davis told CNBC.com. "To think that my friend John Weaver is the common denominator in those three [Kasich, Huntsman and McCain] is almost humorous."

Weaver, who has become a somewhat polarizing figure in Republican politics, said he had to "beat their door down" to land the Kasich campaign gig.

"I did, and I am glad i did," Weaver said. "I thought I saw a great winner. He was a guy that could win and he had the conservative record and communication skills we haven't seen in our party since Reagan or Jack Kemp."

Weaver said there was "no intent" for the candidate to make his mark in the first debate on the question of gay marriage.

"Obviously you don't know what questions are going to come or the dynamic on the stage," he said. "The intent was for the governor to be himself, and we are fortunate we work for a guy who has a north star and knows who he is, knows what he is about. We work to take advantage of situations."


Like McCain's and Huntsman's campaigns of the past, Kasich's road to the nomination is being charted through New Hampshire, where former Sen. John E. Sununu is helping to lead the effort. Kasich has already picked up several key Granite State endorsements, most recently that of Ruth Griffin, who chaired George W. Bush's New Hampshire Steering Committee in 2000. A recent NBC/Marist poll has the Ohio governor at 12 percent, a clear but distant second behind Trump at 28 percent.

While some supporters think Kasich needs at least a top-two finish in New Hampshire to have a shot at the nomination, Weaver sets a slightly more intangible bar: "We need to be the story to come out of New Hampshire."

"I don't want to say we have to win or we have to be second," he added. "I don't want to have a bar I am going to be judged against."

Although it won't officially write off South Carolina, the Kasich campaign clearly recognizes its candidate's limitations in the evangelical deep South. Kasich's southern strategy instead appears to be constructed around Mississippi, where it has a key supporter in former Sen. Trent Lott, and Alabama, where it locked up the surprise endorsement last month of popular Gov. Robert Bentley.

"[Kasich] comes across as a legitimate blue-collar guy," Lott told CNBC.com. "His track record clearly comes as conservative, but he is one that says that government does have a role to play. I don't want to use these outmoded terms —'conservative with a heart'—but he is very smart and thoughtful."


A glance at Kasich's recent travel itinerary shows his long-term strategy banking hard on Michigan, a border state (of Ohio's) whose governor, Rick Snyder, has previously worked with both Weaver and Davis.

Kasich could use some sugar mommies and daddies to keep the boat afloat. Although it is beating the bushes high and low, the Kasich super PAC has yet to land a megadonor capable of putting millions into the race.

For now, both the campaign and the super PAC are trying to stay as lean as possible, taking a lesson from McCain's 2008 run, which almost ran out of money in the early primary season. New Day for America did score something of a coup, when it locked up the services of the upstart digital consulting firm, Applecart, which had, according to the company, also been solicited by the Bush campaign. (The Bush campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

But first things first: Kasich is looking for another dose of good press this week.

"The monthly debates are going to become more interesting than the last one, but probably more pointed than the last debate," said Weaver. "With our success, he has become a target of some of the other campaigns. and while they have dropped opposition research here or there, when that starts getting to point of political combat, can we prove to voters and press core and pundits that we can take a punch and be resilient?"

Or, will the ending be all too familiar?