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Milbank: Kasich struggles to counter campaign negativity

John Kasich, at a campaign stop in Rockville, Md., on Monday, explained why Republican voters aren't buying what he's selling.

John Kasich, at a campaign stop in Rockville, Md., on Monday, explained why Republican voters aren't buying what he's selling.

"I'm trying to peddle hope," said the Ohio governor. "Hope in the short term doesn't get you a lot of attention, because hope's too positive. Negative is what works."

As if on cue, a man in the back row, enraged that a Fox Business correspondent's live stand-up was distracting him from the candidate's positive words about hope, turned around and bellowed at the press risers: "Shut up!"

If self-righteousness were a state and not just a state of mind, Kasich would win its primary handily. But there is no such commonwealth. And here in the United States of Anger in 2016, Mr. Nice Guy has struggled to lift off.

"I've got a new plan," Kasich told the few hundred supporters seated in a gymnasium in the Washington suburb. "I'm going to go down to the Kennedy Space Center. I'm going to get in the rocket, have a short flight, land in water, be fetched out of the ocean by a big Navy ship, and have a press conference. The only reason I might not do it is they might not pick me up."

If naval rescuers are anything like this year's Republican voters, they might not even notice he splashed down.

Yet hope-filled Kasich somehow remains optimistic about his candidacy, which is why he entered Sunday night into an unorthodox alliance with Ted Cruz to try to force Donald Trump into a contested convention. Under their agreement, Kasich won't contest Indiana, to boost Cruz's chances there, and Cruz won't campaign in New Mexico and Oregon, to assist Kasich.

Kasich seems to think it isn't too late. He gamely declared Monday that of the 10 times Republicans have had open conventions, the front-runner has been rejected seven times. What Kasich didn't note: This hasn't happened in 76 years.

An hour before Kasich took the stage, Trump was doing what he does best: insulting people. He called Cruz a "pain in the ass" and Kasich a stubborn child who has "disgusting" eating habits. He accused the two of them of "colluding" - and said that's illegal in business.

But in politics, alliances aren't illegal - they're essential. The only outrage about the anti-Trump alliance is that one didn't happen sooner, when it could have done some good. Had the candidates ganged up on Trump months ago, they surely could have beaten the bully.

Now the Kasich-Cruz alliance looks to be a few months late and a few million votes short, even as more Republicans come to terms with the horror of Trump as the nominee. The conservative billionaire Charles Koch, who was largely silent during the primaries, just said, "I don't know how we could support" Trump. In an interview with ABC's Jon Karl, Koch called Trump's call to register all Muslims "reminiscent of Nazi Germany," and he called it "frightening" that Cruz's talk of carpet-bombing the Middle East would appeal to Americans. Koch even said it's "possible" he would support Clinton over the Republican nominee.

Kasich at times already seems to be talking about his candidacy as if it were in the past - a reasonable tense to use for a man who would need 158 percent of remaining delegates to secure the nomination. "I am a fundamental believer in ideas," he told the Washington Post's editorial board last week. "And frankly, my Republican Party doesn't like ideas."

In the Rockville gym, one of Kasich's fans carried a hand-lettered sign: "Don't be so angry. You can't think straight. Vote Kasich." That message may make sense in the wealthy Washington suburbs, where many work for the federal government. Connie Morella, a moderate Republican who once represented the area in Congress, introduced Kasich with a lengthy treatment of his legislative bona fides, and Kasich spoke about doubling medical research spending, fighting man-made climate change, and opposing the "absurd" idea of deporting 11 million illegal immigrants.

"Everything you say - it resonates," a woman told Kasich during the Q&A. So why, she asked, is "the rest of the U.S. not picking up on that?"

"At the end of the day," Kasich replied, "people don't want to live ... in tension, negativity, conflict." As evidence, he pointed to a new poll in New Hampshire showing that Republicans who voted in that state's primary would now favor Kasich over Trump at a contested convention, 26 percent to 22 percent.

Alas, Trump already won the New Hampshire primary. And buyer's remorse isn't going to get Kasich the nomination.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. @Milbank