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Ohio Governor John Kasich acknowledges that a big finish in the New Hampshire primary is a matter of survival in the GOP race

Without one, he goes home

Manchester, New Hampshire CNN  — 

John Kasich warned Wednesday that the gloom and doom campaigning of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump would make it difficult for the top Republicans to defeat Hillary Clinton if one of them earned the GOP presidential nomination.

It was a rare moment when Kasich knocked opponents by name, not insinuation. And it comes as Kasich battles Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and a reinvigorated Marco Rubio, coming off a stronger than expected third-place finish in Iowa, for the establishment mantle. Kasich acknowledges that a big finish here is a matter of survival. Without one, he goes home.

“I’m worried about beating Hillary. Of course I am,” Kasich said at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast briefing. “I think Hillary will be a strong candidate. And if our party underestimates her, they’re making a terrible mistake.”

The Ohio governor argued that candidates who come into his home state “all dark and negative,” won’t win the key fall battleground – taking a swipe at Cruz and Trump all while insisting he wasn’t.

“That dark and negative message is coming from Cruz and Trump. You figure it out. I’m not here to attack other candidates today. I’m sorry. I’m just not doing it,” Kasich said.

That sorry-not-sorry play is classic Kasich. He typically assiduously avoids calling out his opponents by name while criticizing their campaigns and policies.

Within a few hours on Wednesday, Kasich seemed to knock Cruz twice. He criticized the idea of replacing the Internal Revenue Service with a flat tax – a Cruz policy prescription – and then launched this passive aggressive sidewinder:

“I don’t go out and try to win a vote by using God,” Kasich said. “I think that cheapens God.”

Pressed to identify his targets, Kasich wouldn’t – and that’s by design. The Ohio governor is betting he’ll win more votes by talking up his experience, rather than tearing down his opponents.

“I just don’t think it’s in my interest right now to go out there attacking other people for their depth or anything else. That’s not what I want to do,” he said.

Only when a table full of national reporters pressed Kasich to name the opponents he thought were campaigning in darkness and fear, did he relent and cite Cruz and Trump.

But a few hours later, during a quick Q+A with reporters after a town hall, Kasich was back to form, refusing to answer a question about why voters should choose him over his competition.

“They don’t ask me that, and I don’t talk about it, so I don’t think I need to talk to you about it. I think I need to just get out and do my town halls and be positive and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “You’ve never heard me talk about another candidate. Isn’t that unbelievable?”