Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich smiles as he is applauded during a watch party at the Renaissance Columbus Downtown Hotel, March 8, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. 
Photo by John Minchillo/AP

Ohio loves John Kasich. Maybe too much to lose him

Updated

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ohio Gov. John Kasich is one of the most popular governors in the country, a distinction that could actually harm his quest for the presidency as the campaign barrels into his home state ahead of the next set of critical primary contests.

It’s a parochial issue for Ohioans. Many of his supporters want to propel him to the White House, but if he loses the nomination, they won’t lose him as their top executive. He will return to Columbus to continue leading the state that he’s governed since 2010.

At a recent Kasich rally in Cleveland, a smiling Claude Booker said a loss for Kasich won’t necessarily be a loss for his supporters.

“We always have Kasich in Ohio,” Booker said.

The mutual affinity between Kasich and his constituents in Ohio was on display Tuesday. After months of campaigning outside the state, Kasich returned home to Ohio on Tuesday evening, even as polls were still open in nearby Michigan.

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It was obvious that he was glad to be back on home turf. Walking on stage to a standing ovation, he kneeled down and kissed the ground.

“It’s so nice to be here with all of you in Cleveland, right in Cleveland, Ohio, the beloved city,” Kasich said to an overflow crowd in Broadview Heights, a Cleveland suburb.

“I have felt the entire time - I hope I’m right - that you’ve been proud of me, proud for me to carry the Buckeye banner,” he said as if he was a meandering teenager proving his worth to understanding parents.

Kasich’s supporters, even in the Democratic stronghold of Cuyahoga County where Cleveland is located, gushed with affection in return.

Irene Mahlay, a math professor at Cuyahoga County Community College, was also at Kasich’s rally and supports him not only because she likes him as governor but because she said his plans for the country are the only ones that add up.

“He’s the most reasonable” of the candidates, she said, adding that he can answer the following questions: “How are you going to balance the budget? How are you gong to compromise? What are you going to do? And the fact that he has a proven record.”

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Kasich is a popular governor. He was re-elected in 2014, beating his Democratic challenger by more than 30 points. He won all but two of Ohio’s 88 counties. And even though he’s spending much of his time outside of the state running for president, his approval ratings haven’t seemed to suffer. His constituents gave him the highest level of support of his tenure in October, with 62 percent approving of his job as governor.

Despite his popularity, it’s no guarantee that he’ll win here.

The most optimistic poll on the Republican race in Ohio was released on Wednesday by Fox News, showing Kasich beating the rest of the field but with only 34 percent support - far less than his approval rating as governor.

But elections are about choices. And given the choice, 29 percent in that Fox News poll say they support front-runner Donald Trump.

After his surprising second place finish in New Hampshire, Kasich worked to make sure he could stay in the race until Ohio, chugging through a series of primaries less friendly to a Midwestern governor who expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, believes in man-made climate change and avoids slinging mud at front-runner Donald Trump or any of the other two remaining candidates.

Kasich has enjoyed some decent results along the way. He placed second in Massachusetts and nearly won Vermont. He is one of the four remaining candidates in a race that began with 16 Republican contenders. He is the last governor standing.

But Kasich hasn’t won a state, yet. And he’s only won 54 delegates. If Kasich doesn’t do well in Ohio, his chances to be the 45th president are over. (Even winning Ohio makes it difficult for him to win the nomination. It could, however, help him amass enough delegates to further raise the specter of a contested convention if no candidate gets majority support before Republicans meet in Cleveland in July.)

Ohio is a big prize. It awards 66 delegates - five percent of the total needed to reach the nomination and would more than double Kasich’s delegate total.

Michael Gordon, a small business owner in Cleveland, said that despite the fact that he’s in fourth place, he’s going to support Kasich for president because of his policies, his personality, and his morality.

“He knows that by helping the business community he’s not being a shill. He knows that a good strong private sector generates everything. It generates the roads. It generates the schools,” Gordon said. “That’s why without getting mushy I’m such a big fan of John.”

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.

John Kasich

Ohio loves John Kasich. Maybe too much to lose him

Updated