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Yes, John Kasich is still running for president — in 2020

Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at a campaign rally at the Crowne Plaza Milwaukee West hotel on March 23, 2016 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
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Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at a campaign rally at the Crowne Plaza Milwaukee West hotel on March 23, 2016 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

Of the 17 candidates who ran for the Republican nomination, perhaps only two can honestly say they ran the races they intended to run. Donald Trump, the victor, is certainly one of them. John Kasich's aides argue that he's the other.

Following his unceremonious departure from the presidential primary in May, the Ohio Republican governor is carrying forward with a sense of vindication, embracing his new role as the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for vulnerable swing-state Republicans.

On Thursday, that found Kasich in Chicago, helping to raise money for Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who is in a tough re-election fight against Democrat Tammy Duckworth. After appearing at a fundraiser, Kasich joined Kirk on a tour of 1871, a non-profit incubator for tech start-ups — the perfect photo op.

At every turn, the Ohio governor is making sure to show America he's looking toward the future.

That future looks past Trump and athwart Ted Cruz, who has his own designs on consolidating the GOP in the potential wake of another presidential loss, as post-convention polls indicate is a likelihood. Going forward, Kasich is indicating that he has little intention to change his approach, maintaining his close ties to John Weaver, the man who oversaw his 2016 campaign.

"I suspect he doesn't know yet," Weaver told CNBC.com, when asked about Kasich's presidential plans. "The day we got off the plane after he pulled out [out of the race], it was a 1 or 2 percent chance he would ever do it again. But I would say the chance has gone up, because of how outrageous Trump is."

Kasich's road to the White House, aides say, is predicated on how Republican primary voters would respond to a shellacking this fall, and whether they would actively seek to broaden the party's tent next cycle. It could also come down to the precise specifics of how 2016 unfolds, particularly in Kasich's home state, a key presidential battleground.

But for the moment — however long that moment lasts — his campaign is feeling justified for keeping its powder dry in the waning days of the primary race, resisting the calls to go nuclear against Trump.

"He was widely criticized for [that approach] by some," Weaver said. "Many of those people have come back and apologized to us. No one who has gotten involved with Donald Trump has come back from that relationship unscathed, so the fact he did what he did is looking mighty smart."

The Kasich campaign had, for a while, indicated that it would take its fight to the bitter end, the convention floor if necessary, until the candidate abruptly called it quits on May 4, just before boarding a plane to campaign in Washington, D.C.


Gaining support of Buckeye Dems

A Public Policy Polling survey two weeks ago showed that Kasich has 50 percent support among Ohio voters, a slight dip from where he was this spring. The makeup of his support, however, has dramatically reoriented, gaining the support of Democrats while losing Republicans.

According to several knowledgeable sources, Weaver, despite his baggage, remains the odds-on favorite to helm a future Kasich presidential bid. "You either leave these things closer or further apart, and they left closer," said Matt David, who served as the chief strategist for the pro-Kasich Super PAC, New Day for America. Weaver, who is based in Texas, remains on the payroll and is regularly spotted around Columbus. He effectively now serves as the manager of Kasich's "Good Housekeeping" brand.

The two have formed a kind of good-cop, bad-cop duo when it comes to Trump, with the consultant taking a much more strident and aggressive tone toward the Republican nominee, especially on Twitter. Kasich has tried to strike a balance, keeping Trump at arm's length while trying to avoid getting into an arm wrestle.

In a rare Sunday morning talk-show appearance on CNN's "State of the Union," Kasich went perhaps his furthest in publicly distancing himself from his party's nominee. and yet strained not to avoid a new spat with the blustery billionaire. When asked, for example, about Trump's initial obstinance in supporting the re-election bids of Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, Kasich described it as "a little bizarre" — a clear understatement.

Asked about the prospects of eventually endorsing Trump, Kasich suggested it was quite unlikely, but didn't definitively rule it out: "There's so much water over the dam now, it's become increasingly difficult," he said. "But I want, you know, unifying."

Speaking to reporters in Chicago on Thursday, Kirk, who has previously declared Trump "too bigoted and racist" to be president, joked that he and Kasich were both suffering from a form of PTSD: "Post-Trump Traumatic Disorder." Kasich, however, was quick to interject: "Make sure to note that he said it," the governor told reporters. "I don't want to have to answer calls for the next week."

But Trump is making a mutual nonaggression pact very difficult.

During a recent appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Trump floated the idea that he could launch a $10 million anti-Kasich super PAC, if he fails to win the presidency.

On Sunday, Kasich confirmed to CNN a New York Times report that Donald Trump Jr., the nominee's son, reached out prior to the convention, offering Kasich the running-mate slot and the promise of being in charge of all policy decisions in a Trump administration. (The Trump campaign has subsequently denied this, but several Kasich sources confirmed the account to CNBC.com.

While communications have largely ceased between the camps, one source close to Kasich told CNBC.com that Trump surrogates Ben Carson and Newt Gingrich have, in recent weeks, made overtures to the governor in an effort to thaw relations. Carson's spokesman, Armstrong Williams, confirmed to CNBC.com that Carson left a message on Kasich's cell phone late last week, offering himself as a bridge; Kasich, as of Sunday night, had not responded.

For now, the Ohio governor is putting most of his attention in the re-election bid of his home-state senator, Rob Portman, who endorsed Kasich's presidential campaign right before the New Hampshire primary. Kasich aides are now predicting a scenario where Trump loses the presidency, the GOP loses seats in the Senate, but Portman prevails.

"I think it would be further proof that Kasich is most popular politician in every poll you see," said Scott Blake, a longtime Kasich aide who served as regional political director of his presidential campaign.

"We're extremely fortunate to have Governor John Kasich's support and he is hands down our most valuable surrogate," Portman's campaign spokesperson, Michawn Rich, said in a statement.

But insiders also express deep concern about a scenario where Ohio ends up handing Clinton the presidency, and Kasich is subsequently blamed for it.

In any event, aides insist Kasich does not have his finger in the political winds, and that his machinations are based purely on what he thinks is right for his party and the country. Moreover, as Weaver says, "Anybody who is trying to game-plan out what is going to happen tomorrow, much less what is happening in 2020, is crazy."

Skipping convention came down to "manners"

Kasich's camp is, however, reveling in the pickle Cruz has found himself in, following his decision to publicly reject Trump from the stage of the Republican National Convention.

On CNN Sunday, Kasich contrasted that approach with his decision to simply not attend the event, saying it came down the "manners."

"Believe it or not," he said, "I wanted to show respect to the nominee."

Chris Schrimpf, a Kasich spokesman, told CNBC.com: "Some people wanted him to do a Ted Cruz-type speech. Other people wanted him to welcome Trump. Neither of those things felt right to him. Ultimately, he thought about doing the right thing. Did it work out this year? Not in the Republican primary, but he certainly has his voice moving forward."

In the coming weeks, Kasich plans to use that voice to campaign for two Republicans who have gotten crosswise with Trump: Ayotte and Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, who recently cut a biting anti-Trump ad. Tom Davis, the former Virginia congressman and longtime Kasich pal, said the governor "gives authenticity for their distance" to the party's problematic standard-bearer.

"I think he is providing a service that should be carried out from the top of the ticket, but can't because of [Trump's] petty name-calling and stupid statements," said Blake.

Kasich smirks over Cruz

Davis sees similarities between Kasich this election and McCain in 2000, after he lost a bitter primary race against George W. Bush.

"He wasn't interested in helping Bush," Davis recalled, "but he wanted to show his Republican bona fides. He helped us hold the House and with his help we over-performed."

Since ending his campaign, Kasich has made nice with some of his former foes: He sent out a campaign fundraising email on behalf of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and did an in-person fundraiser for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Kasich aides say that while his focus will be campaigning in swing districts, he will also make his way to stump for Republicans in Texas. The campaign did not specify who those GOPers would be, but it appears one can be ruled out.

When CNBC.com asked him whether his beneficence may extend to Cruz, who is up for re-election to the Senate during the midterms, Kasich couldn't help but smirk.

"Ted Cruz?" he laughed. "What's he running for?"