The 2016 field narrows, on one side anyway

Jules Witcover explores whether John Kasich's campaign could gain traction against Messrs. Cruz and Trump.

Hillary Clinton's Tuesday sweep of five Democratic primaries puts her more securely in the lead for her party's presidential nomination. Yet despite Donald Trump's victory in four of the five Republican state contests, his path to the nomination still encourages resistance within his party.

Ms. Clinton rebounded from her defeat in Michigan last week by beating Sen. Bernie Sanders in three other Rust Belt states -- Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, where he had hoped to keep his comeback going -- as well as in Florida and North Carolina.

The former secretary of state widened her lead to a cumulate margin of 1,606 delegates to 851 for the Vermonter, with 2,383 required for nomination.

The political calendar now looks Northeast and West, where Mr. Sanders' populist pitch could prove more resonant than in the South swept so far by Ms. Clinton. But the gap between them nevertheless would require a remarkable change in the arc of the voting so far to deny her victory in Philadelphia in July.

On the Republican side, Ms. Trump's one loss on Tuesday, to the previously winless Ohio Gov. John Kasich in his home state, was at least a temporary detour for the bombastic celebrity businessman. It denied him a whopping 66 delegates under the state's winner-take-all rules that could in the end leave Mr. Trump short of the 1,237 required at the Cleveland convention.

In the five states voting Tuesday, Mr. Trump picked up 204 delegates, Sen. Ted Cruz picked up 41, Mr. Kasich gained 80, and Mr. Rubio won six. According to the latest Associated Press/Politico tracking, Mr. Trump has 673 delegates committed to 411 for Mr. Cruz, 169 for the now dropped-out Mr. Rubio and 143 for Mr. Kasich.

Supporters of the stop-Trump effort, led by 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and some party establishment leaders, most of whom have no love for Mr. Cruz, are now looking to the longshot Kasich candidacy.

The Ohioan has conspicuously declined to join the pile-on against Trump originally led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose own candidacy was effectively harpooned by Mr. Trump's fierce ridicule of him as a "low-energy" competitor, among other insults.

En route to his Ohio primary victory, Mr. Kasich declared to would not "take the low road to seek the highest office in the land." In the late stages, however, he did criticize Mr. Trump for creating "a toxic environment" in the campaign for his personal and biting attacks on the rest of the field.

The Kasich campaign obviously hopes to tap into a growing public distaste for Mr. Trump and his raucous rallies, where he baits protesters and then calls for police and other security men to remove them. Mr. Trump has denied he has been encouraging the disorder and has blamed Mr. Sanders for their presence at his rallies. Mr. Sanders, denying it, has called Mr. Trump "a pathological liar."

Within the Republican moderate establishment, Mr. Kasich, as a longtime Ohio congressman before he became governor, had a reputation in Washington as an acerbic figure and a dependable conservative. But as a presidential candidate, he has seemed to some Washingtonians to have undergone a more likeable personality transplant. Furthermore, his record as budget-balancer and deficit hawk in the House of Representatives has been carried over in Columbus and has been a centerpiece of his current campaign for national office. That record ought to find support in the now three-man race for the GOP nomination.

It pits Mr. Kasich for as long as he stays in against the surviving tea-party favorite Mr. Cruz and the loose-cannon Mr. Trump, a late-to-the-dance Republican who for years was a donor to Democrats, including the Clintons.

Mr. Kasich clearly has a lot of ground to make up against both of them, but the campaign he's running could find traction against two foes not exactly universally loved in this year's shattered Grand Old Party.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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