As Gov. John Kasich heads into his sixth prime-time presidential debate on Thursday night, experts wonder if he can correct past mistakes and deliver the commanding performance he needs.
This debate in South Carolina is crucial for Kasich. The latest poll shows a surge in New Hampshire, where he has campaigned with a do-or-die strategy. He is now ahead of Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio there, and in a second-place tie behind Donald Trump.
Yet winning the GOP nomination is still a long shot for Kasich, experts said.
“He’s kind of like a team that needs a lot to happen in order to make the playoffs," said Joe Valenzano, interim communications chairman at the University of Dayton who is an expert on rhetoric and political communication. “He has to hit a home run, and have other people strike out.”
Not only does Kasich need to nail his message on Thursday night, he needs his competitors to flub theirs.
“Where he’s gone wrong in previous debates is in tone and tactics, more than what he’s actually said,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.
While Trump excels at branding himself, Kasich has really struggled with it, said University of Dayton marketing professor Randy Sparks.
“He’s got to do something to crystallize his brand,” Sparks said. “He has to figure out what to say about himself that will make people believe he can defeat Hillary Clinton. I don’t know exactly what that will be … ethics, honesty leadership?”
Kasich made plenty of mistakes in past debates – first appearing too nice, which made him seem flat, and then interrupting his way into more talking time, which made him appear too angry.
WCPO compiled a report card of his past debates - what worked, what didn’t, where he stood and what he wore.
What’s our takeaway? Kasich did best at debates when he wore his light blue tie.
So maybe he should skip the power red tie on Thursday.
First debate score: ****
When: Aug. 6, 2015
Sponsors: Facebook/Fox News/Ohio Republicans
Tie color: Light blue
Stage position: 10 candidates. Far right next to Rand Paul.
The good: Loud applause from home team crowd. Appeared relaxed. Joked with Donald Trump about donating to his campaign.
The bad: Lacked strong appeal with conservatives.
Best quip: "And guess what, I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay,” Kasich said, drawing applause to a gay marriage question.
Takeaway: Experts praised him. Changed instantly from unknown to contender. Gallup poll numbers rose 12 points.
Second debate score: **
When: Sept. 16, 2015
Where: Simi Valley, California
Sponsors: CNN/Salem Radio
Tie color: Red
Stage position: 11 candidates. Left far side between Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie.
The good: Touted an experienced adult theme and ability to win Ohio.
The bad: Little talking time. Only four direct questions in a three-hour debate.
Best quip: Pointed at Air Force One in the backdrop and said, “I think I actually flew on this plane with Ronald Reagan when I was a congressman.”
Takeaway: Didn’t win the debate, but didn’t lose it either. He lost momentum from the first debate.
Third debate score: **
When: Oct. 28, 2015
Where: Boulder, Colorado
Tie color: Red
Stage position: 10 candidates. Far left, next to Mike Huckabee.
The good: Attacked Trump at the start of the debate. The result: Kasich was the most searched candidate on Google during the first hour of the debate, the Washington Post reported.
The bad: Trump fired back at Kasich for his work on Wall Street and for turning nasty when his poll numbers sank.
Best quip: Opened with a strong warning to voters: “We are on the verge of picking someone who cannot do this job.”
Takeaway: No more Mr. Nice Guy. He came out swinging. But is it smart to pick a fight with Trump?
Fourth debate score: *
When: Nov. 10, 2015
Where: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Sponsors: Fox Business/Wall Street Journal
Tie color: Red
Stage position: Eight candidates. Far left next to Jeb Bush.
The good: Attacked Trump for a controversial plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and deport 11 million.
The bad: Tried to get more talking time by constantly interrupting. Viewers didn’t like it. One focus group by public opinion guru Frank Luntz gave him the lowest score ever recorded in the history of his focus groups, according to Real Clear Politics.
Best quip: “Can we comment on that … can we comment on that?” Kasich asked moderators, trying to get a word in on Trump’s immigration policy.
Takeaway: Kasich’s worst performance. Viewers didn’t like his pushiness and called him too aggressive.
Fifth debate score: ***
When: Dec. 15, 2015
Where: Las Vegas, Nevada
Sponsor: CNN/Salem Radio
Tie color: Light blue
Stage position: Eight candidates. Far left, next to Fiorina.
The good: He stopped picking fights with Trump and stayed positive and on message, pushing a strong economy and defense.
The bad: His performance was good, but not enough to spark lasting media buzz or a big bounce in the polls.
Best quip: It’s “time we punched the Russians in the nose.”
Takeaway: This may have been Kasich’s best debate since the first one. Should he stick with the light blue tie?