Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, making his first campaign swing through Maryland on Wednesday, predicted that his party will re-evaluate the race for the GOP nomination when it holds its convention this summer — and will choose a nominee who can win the presidency.
The Ohio governor, who has won only his home state this year and is trailing far behind front-runner Donald Trump, said Maryland and the four other states voting on April 26 will play a critical role in determining whether GOP leaders can slow Trump's march toward the nomination.
Kasich's visit — the first by any Republican presidential candidate to Maryland since voting in the primaries began in January — underscores the unusual attention the state's late election is receiving from both parties this year.
Former President Bill Clinton appeared at the Leisure World retirement community in Montgomery County on Wednesday to stump for his wife.
"She's the best prepared," Clinton said, "but the real reason you should be for her is she is the best change-maker."
Kasich did not mention Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz by name, but he suggested repeatedly that neither is as well positioned to beat the Democratic nominee in November. He predicted that Republican delegates would make that same determination in a contested convention, which is the only way he could walk out of Cleveland with his party's nomination.
"Think about what this Republican Party is now offering," Kasich said at a town hall attended by about 400 people in Savage. "We're going to get killed if we don't pick somebody who can win an election in the fall."
Maryland, Kasich supporters believe, is the kind of state where the governor should perform well. Its Republicans have by and large resisted the party's rightward shift in recent years, and have tended to support centrists, such as Gov. Larry Hogan, elected in 2014, and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Ehrlich was at Kasich's side Wednesday as he campaigned throughout the state. Before speaking in Howard County, Kasich stopped in Baltimore for a fundraiser and ordered a cup of chocolate at the You Scream Ice Cream parlor in Catonsville.
"I've seen him operate," said Ehrlich, a former congressman who served as Maryland's governor from 2003 to January 2007. "I couldn't think of a better match for Maryland."
Yet Kasich hasn't performed much better in polling here than he has in the states he has lost. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released last week had Kasich in second place among likely Republican voters, 10 points behind Trump but nine points ahead of Cruz.
An NBC4/Marist Poll released Tuesday had Kasich in third place, trailing Cruz by five points — just within the survey's margin of error.
Echoing a message he has carried across the country, Kasich specifically criticized Trump's immigration policies, saying that deporting an estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally would be disruptive. He said that increasing police surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods, as Cruz has suggested, would harm that community's relationship with law enforcement.
He mocked Trump's plan to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico: "I have very little doubt that that will happen."
Asked about violence in Baltimore, Kasich said that businesses and philanthropic groups should be encouraged to "adopt" schools. He said federal and local government could do more to cut burdensome regulations that he said hamper entrepreneurs from starting small businesses.
Kasich fell nine delegates short of filing a full slate of 24 in Maryland — which might speak more to a lack of early organization than a potential problem going forward. Most of Maryland's delegates are bound to support the candidate who wins their congressional district for the first two rounds of convention balloting.
If voters select Trump's delegates in the state's 7th Congressional District in the election, for instance, but Kasich wins the popular vote there, those delegates must support Kasich — at least initially. Maryland will offer 38 delegates in all, three from each of its eight congressional districts and 14 statewide.
Pennsylvania is the biggest prize April 26, but Maryland offers candidates the second-largest number of delegates of the five states that vote that day (the others are Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island). Early voting begins Thursday.
"We're going to an open convention," Kasich predicted.
The delegates, he said, "are going to get in there and they're going to realize who actually could be the president."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Jeff Barker and Rachael Pacella contributed to this article.