COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Republicans hoping to stop presidential candidate Donald Trump were quickly deploying forces in Ohio Thursday as one of their last battlefronts ahead of Tuesday's crucial cluster of winner-take-all primaries.
Some anti-Trump groups said they were rushing to air television advertisements in Ohio, where home-state Gov. John Kasich has crept into a dead heat with the billionaire businessman, after the groups poured millions into Florida, despite Trump's solid lead there.
Nationally known Ohio conservative Ken Blackwell joined the chorus of anti-Trump voices, while Trump himself was planning weekend stops in Cleveland and Dayton.
Still, some members of the Republican establishment in Ohio, the second-biggest prize among Tuesday's nomination contests, wondered if efforts to derail Trump here were coming too late and if their preoccupation with Florida has been a waste.
"You would think this would be their big charge up the hill," Ohio GOP state committee member Matt Cox said. "It would be a head scratcher if there's no bigger effort to stop Trump here."
Blackwell, a senior fellow with the Family Research Council who ran for Ohio governor in 2006, lambasted Trump on Thursday, calling him an unelectable "huckster" who is "dragging the nation into the gutter."
The former state elections chief and one-time contender to chair the Republican National Committee also sits on the boards of conservative groups Club for Growth and National Rifle Association.
He put his weight behind the Our Principles PAC — a group of wealthy Republicans and GOP activists who oppose Trump — which announced late Wednesday plans to spend $1 million on ads in Ohio in the primary campaign's final week. Officials with American Future Fund, another Republican anti-Trump group, said they too would spend money advertising in Ohio, but didn't note how much.
The movement toward Ohio comes as these and other groups combined to spend $4.1 million last week alone on ads attacking Trump in Florida, according to data provided by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.
But none of those groups have run ads attacking Trump in Ohio. And only one Republican group, which supports Kasich, paid for advertising in Ohio last week. The ads poke mildly at Trump and his rivals, but mainly promote Kasich.
Kasich's campaign has not aired any attack ads in Ohio, nor do they expect to. Kasich has long argued that the way to beat Trump is instead by projecting an understanding of the frustrations Trump has tapped. Kasich specifically is touting Ohio's increase in employment during his five years as governor.
And while it was not clear what the content would be, the pro-Kasich super PAC was scheduled to air about $750,000 in ads in Ohio in the final week.
Trump has dominated Florida polls for months, and maintained his solid lead in polls there this week. Rival Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, vows to win the Florida primary, but has never led in voter surveys and has been running in second place according to recent polls. The winner of the Florida Republican primary receives all 99 delegates.
The winner of Ohio's GOP primary receives all 66 delegates.
Kasich, taking advantage of the Ohio Republican Party's apparatus, has carefully assembled a statewide get-out-the-vote operation, making gains through his positive, Trump-free message.
The governor's campaign has been making the case for several weeks that the Ohio governor is better prepared to win his home state than Rubio is to win his. John Weaver, a senior strategist for Kasich, played down the need for anti-Trump money in the race.
"We're not going to lose Ohio because of a lack of money. We're doing everything that we want to do in Ohio," Weaver said, calling the money spent in Florida "for naught."
Weaver also made the case that a focus away from Ohio by anti-Trump groups was an asset to Kasich. It reinforces the Ohio governor's claim as an outsider candidate, Weaver said, rather than the preference of the national party establishment, which Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have criticized as ineffective and corrupt.
Kasich has carried a message of economic opportunity that appeals to a good chunk of Ohio independents and some Democrats.
Cincinnati Republican Alex Triantafilou said he was surprised there was not more of an anti-Trump effort in Ohio. "But I would also say, Gov. Kasich's operation is in overdrive."
"There's certainly a heavy grassroots effort here that's not being matched by any of the other campaigns," said Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County GOP.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne contributed from Concord, New Hampshire.
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