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u.s. election 2016

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks to supporters at a town-hall meeting in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday.Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

Under a tent outside a tavern in rural northeastern Ohio, the rally opened with a prayer for unity.

When John Kasich took the stage, he talked about "refusing to take the low road to the highest office in the land" and the importance of being a role model. Folksy and self-deprecating and unabashedly a bit corny, he singled out a woman in the audience to tell her she was "unique" and a child to emphasize the importance of role models. He enthused about his state's current economic trajectory. He devoted a large chunk of his speech to help for marginalized members of society, particularly the mentally ill, and expressed concern for "our friends in the minority community" who believe the country is working against them rather than for them.

Welcome to the last stand of the Republican presidential candidate who offers the truest contrast to Donald Trump – and, at the moment, the best hope of slowing the populist billionaire's path to his party's nomination.

It was supposed to be a tag team for anti-Trump forces on Tuesday, the first time this election in which large states will hold winner-take-all presidential primaries, rather than awarding delegates to candidates proportionate to their share of the vote. Marco Rubio would win on his home turf of Florida and Mr. Kasich, the Ohio Governor, would carry his state. Mr. Trump's path to a majority of delegates heading into this summer's national convention would become a lot tougher.

With Mr. Rubio trailing Mr. Trump by double digits in the Sunshine State, only Mr. Kasich is holding up his end of the bargain. Polls have him and Mr. Trump virtually tied in Ohio, and Mr. Kasich is counting on his superior on-the-ground organization – which is, really, most of the state's Republican apparatus – to give him the turnout advantage needed to win.

Even then, Mr. Kasich would face what could generously be described as an uphill battle to the nomination himself. While his campaign is hoping momentum out of Ohio will boost his chances in states yet to hold their votes, he has not finished first in any of the 26 primaries or caucuses so far.

But beyond complicating Mr. Trump's math, there would be something symbolically compelling about him denying Mr. Trump a win in the Buckeye State – a Rust Belt battleground that the Republican nominee typically needs to win in order to claim the White House.

In places such as the Mahoning Valley, where Mr. Kasich was campaigning on Sunday evening and Monday morning, a slow and uneven recovery from the 2008 recession might have created much of the anger (particularly among blue-collar white voters suffering from the decline of traditional manufacturing) that has drawn people to Mr. Trump's nativist and anti-establishment campaign.

The other remaining candidates, Mr. Rubio and especially Ted Cruz, would try to channel some of that anger themselves, arguing that Mr. Trump is a false prophet and they're the real revolutionaries. Mr. Kasich, despite being plenty to the right on issues ranging from abortion to climate change, is instead pitching a sort of compassionate conservatism. He boasts that lower taxes and smaller government and less regulation, combined with strong supports for the developmentally disabled and working poor and others who "live in the shadows," are working wonders under his state government and need to be exported to Washington.

Telling people things are already getting better in their state, and standing up for marginalized groups with limited votes to offer Republicans, qualifies as daring at a time when other candidates are insisting the entire country is going to hell in a handbasket. Mr. Kasich can pull it off here, backers say, because his record as Governor – including turning a large budget deficit into a surplus, and some of the country's better job growth – speaks for itself. In an interview, Ohio Republican chairman Matt Borges dismissed concerns about voters not believing those numbers reflect their own reality: "Donald Trump's not winning the argument that Ohio's not in good shape."

There has plainly been a degree of calculation in the touchy-feely way Mr. Kasich has presented that record in this campaign, which has included refusing to try to punch his way into the fray in candidates' debates, and leaning heavily on a town-hall format for campaign events in which he looks deep into questioners' eyes and feels their pain. Through his long political career, including 18 years in U.S. Congress, he has been known for being more acerbic and combative. As University of Akron political scientist John Green puts it: "A lot of people in Ohio, even people who liked him, have wondered what's come over him."

What he seems to have decided, as his party is tearing itself apart, is that there is space for a candidate offering reassurance in the form of a pleasant demeanour and an appeal to better angels. Attendees leave Mr. Trump's rallies ready to fight; they emerge from Mr. Kasich's feeling like they took a warm bath.

Even in Ohio, few people are getting really "excited" about that warm bath. In Youngstown, there was little buzz about his town hall there on Monday morning, which like the rural rally the night before drew a few hundred people. A populist invasion the same day by Mr. Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was a bigger talker.

But Mr. Kasich is counting on a quieter crowd of Republicans making themselves heard, and for all his calm, he's not downplaying the stakes.

Ohioans have a chance, he told an audience as time wound down until polls opened, between "the dark side" and something more hopeful and optimistic. "The whole country's watching now, you know that?"