HEATH, Ohio (AP) — John Kasich on Saturday delivered his harshest criticism yet of Donald Trump, saying he's "had it" with the "toxic" nature of Trump's campaign and suggesting he may not support the businessman should he become the Republican nominee.
"Pitting one group against one another is toxic and divisive and that's not the way we want to elect a president," Kasich told reporters after a town-hall event.
Violence between Trump protesters and supporters led to the cancellation of a Chicago rally on Friday night, giving Kasich a fresh opportunity to distinguish the tone of his campaign from that of Trump's in the final days before the critical Ohio primary. For months, the Ohio governor has declined to hit Trump, saying name-calling and mud-slinging have no place in a presidential contest.
Kasich says he was "deeply disturbed" by reports of the violent clashes outside of Trump's event. Despite saying in the latest debate that he would back the GOP nominee in the fall regardless of who it is, Kasich now says the environment Trump has created "makes it very, extremely difficult" to support him.
"Why don't we talk about our vision?" he asked at his town-hall event. "Let's not try to separate people from one another."
Both Kasich and Trump are feeling a sense of urgency leading up to Tuesday's primary, when the winner will claim all of the state's 66 delegates. A Kasich victory would mark his first in the primary contest and give him a reason to remain in the race. For Trump, a loss would complicate his path toward securing the nomination before the convention in Cleveland this summer. With recent voter surveys suggesting a tight race, the two are going toe-to-toe for the first time in months.
"I have to still get rid of this Kasich guy," Trump told supporters in Cleveland on Saturday. "I have to get rid of Kasich."
Kasich last fall hit Trump over his calls to deport the millions of people living in the United States illegally but has since shied away from going after Trump directly. Trump has until now all but ignored Kasich, but now criticizes him as an absentee governor who does not deserve credit for Ohio's economic turnaround.
Trump called Kasich "a baby" at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday morning, adding "he's not tough enough" to be president. On Twitter, Trump slammed Kasich for backing free trade deals, calling him "good for Mexico." He's running a new ad in Ohio that says Kasich "gave Ohio Obamacare," a reference to Kasich's decision to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama's health care law.
Kasich's backers are defending his record, pointing to the addition of 400,000 jobs in Ohio. His campaign released statements from two unions endorsing Kasich's economic record, and the super PAC backing his candidacy has a new TV ad citing tax cuts and wage growth in Ohio. Kasich is also making the case that he's best prepared to win battleground Ohio in the general election.
Kasich's speeches often sound more like sermons or therapy sessions than political pitches and stand in contrast to the negativity flying back and forth in the GOP campaign. The governor spends extended time telling people they are "made special" and urging them to do more to help their neighbors.
Kasich said the reaction is "remarkable" when he tells voters he won't "take the low road to the highest office in the land."
Associated Press writer Dan Sewell contributed to this report from Dayton, Ohio.