Republican presidential candidates participate in the Republican Presidential Candidates Debate February 6, 2016 at St. Anselm's College Institute of Politics in Manchester, New Hampshire. From left are: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz. Seven Republicans campaigning to be US president are in a fight for survival in their last debate Saturday before the New Hampshire primary, battling to win over a significant number of undecided voters. / AFP / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
© AFP

Just hours after Donald Trump, the brash tycoon leading the Republican presidential race, had entertained a big crowd of raucous fans and celebrity sightseers in Plymouth with his trademark rant against the establishment, John Kasich, the folksy son of a mailman, was taking another approach in the New Hampshire capital of Concord.

“I can’t believe you’re all here. It’s just little old me, folks,” the Ohio governor told a packed room of voters ahead of the New Hampshire primary election on Tuesday.

When the Granite State voters head to the polls, they will decide whether Mr Trump secures the victory he craves after his humbling loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa.

But they will also help define the path ahead for Mr Kasich and the three other mainstream candidates — Florida senator Marco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey governor Chris Christie — each of whom needs a good strong result to help their bid to be crowned as the standard bearer for the Republican establishment in the fight against Messrs Cruz and Trump.

Mr Kasich, a former congressman who served his district for 17 years before spending 10 years as a banker at Lehman Brothers, is running on a platform that is about as moderate in American conservatism as the property mogul’s unorthodox campaign is divisive in the GOP.

The tycoon stressed his status as an outsider who is beholden to nobody in Washington in a rambling speech in Plymouth that was interrupted by a half-naked protester who called Mr Trump a racist. “I have no friends . . . you know who my friends are? You’re my friends,” he roared.

While this anti-establishment stance has fuelled the tycoon’s campaign, Mr Kasich, the former head of the House budget committee who helped forge a balanced budget deal when Bill Clinton was president, made the case that the next president had to work with, not against, Congress.

“You gather the birthdays of the moms and dads of members of Congress and then you call them on their birthdays. Then you get mom to call their son or daughter and say ‘you mess with that president, you’re messin’ with me kid’,” said Mr Kasich, who carries around an electronic debt scoreboard to his events. “You laugh at that, but that is how it works. You have to bring these folks together and get them to rise to a higher purpose.” 

Before he announced his campaign, Mr Kasich told the FT that he was considering a run because there was no “600lb gorilla” in the race.

Mr Trump has emerged as that gorilla, which has given more impetus for the establishment wing of the GOP to rally around one of its four mainstream candidates.

While Mr Rubio emerged from Iowa with the most momentum after coming third, he stumbled badly in the debate on Saturday under a withering attack from Mr Christie who accused the Cuban-American of being an eloquent but robotic speaker who lacks executive experience. 

Mr Bush has been languishing in fifth place in New Hampshire but hopes his recent tougher attacks on Mr Rubio and Mr Trump — “The guy needs therapy,” he joked in Bedford on Saturday — will pay dividends in a state where a strong result is key for him to remain viable. 

Mr Christie has only 5 per cent support in polls in New Hampshire, a state that should be more receptive to his no-nonsense style. He will be looking for a bounce after his robust debate performance on Saturday, but in interviews across the state some voters said there was a perception of the former prosecutor as being a bully.

But the stakes are highest for Mr Kasich, who has gambled his entire campaign on the “Live Free or Die” state. When he spoke at Concord High School, it was his 102nd town hall in the state. Arguably the most down-to-earth politician in the Republican race, he connected with voters, particularly when he spoke movingly about how his parents had been killed in a car crash after they stayed late at Burger King to enjoy the second free cup of coffee.

Mr Kasich also applauded a man with Aspergers syndrome for asking a question at his town hall — something that Mr Bush had noticeably failed to do in a similar situation the previous day. He has come second to Mr Trump in some recent polls — a standing that helps explain a video that Mr Bush released on Monday accusing the Ohio governor of being in favour of gun control, a touchy issue in New Hampshire and particularly among Republican voters. 

How New Hampshire votes will be watched closely on Tuesday evening. As Mr Kasich reminded one undecided voter, “The store is going to close soon”.

@DimiSevastopulo

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