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Sweet: Kasich says he has best campaign in Illinois — 'bar none'

Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, who's running for president, speaks at a campaign rally at the Billy Goat Tavern on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

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If GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich survives until the Illinois primary in March — doing well in the New Hampshire primary is the key — then the sturdy roots his campaign has planted in Illinois will pay off.

Kasich declared that he has the best campaign in Illinois “bar none” when he stumped at the Billy Goat Tavern on Monday afternoon, before heading to Northbrook for a high-dollar fundraiser.

The Ohio governor was in the area Monday en route to Milwaukee, where the fourth Republican debate takes place Tuesday night, hosted by Fox Business News, the Wall Street Journal and the Republican National Committee.

“We are doing well in petition gathering, but we have to keep things up,” Kasich told the youthful crowd at the Goat, which included a group from the University of Chicago College Republicans.

As for Kasich’s boast about his Illinois campaign, he has a point.

Kasich has a nice chunk of big-money Illinoisans and, more important at this stage, a campaign run by a cadre of seasoned Illinois political operatives, some of whom held top spots in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s successful 2014 run.

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That’s crucial at this time in Illinois, because the game now is recruiting delegates and making sure they get on the March 15 ballot. It’s a big task: That’s 68 delegates and, all told, about 17,000 signatures to gather.

Before Kasich arrived at the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan Avenue staffers and volunteers were circulating petitions to get Kasich and his 7th Congressional District delegates on the ballot.

“He’s extremely well-organized here in Illinois,” state Sen. Republican Leader Christine Radogno, the Kasich Illinois campaign chair, told me in a phone interview.

She added that “some candidates will struggle,” an unspoken reference to the labyrinth of state laws intended to make it very difficult to qualify to appear on an Illinois ballot. The other top names on Kasich’s Illinois team include DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin; former Illinois GOP party chair Pat Brady and state Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights.

Harris, at the Goat, echoed Radogno on the ballot access ground. “It’s a tough process,” Harris said.

Brady, also at the Goat said, “This is the really hard part of a presidential campaign, besides raising money.”

That’s why Kasich focused much of his brief talk at the Goat on petition gathering.

“We think we are in a really good position, but we have to finish the job,” Kasich said. He did not mention any of his rivals by name or the key component of his strategy: To do well enough in Iowa, with the first presidential vote, and then build momentum by a win or place in New Hampshire.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich poses for a picture with supporters at the Billy Goat Tavern on Monday. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

He took a shot at President Barack Obama, not by name, when he said being president is “not on-the-job training.” Though he did not stop for a famous burger at the Goat, Kasich, not above a bit of a pandering, did promise to bring Billy Goat to the White House if elected.

A veteran of 18 years in Congress and two terms as governor, Kasich is running on a platform to shrink government and move power to local governments.

Taking a few questions, Kasich downplayed the importance of the Milwaukee debate and the debate in recent days over the debates, the hosts, the questions from reporters and the format.

Said Kasich: “I’m tired of talking about them, to tell you the truth.”

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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