MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Former New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu is an MIT graduate with a mind for science and a cautious nature. And the last thing he -- or any other campaign insider -- likes to do is raise expectations.
But as a key adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sununu was all but bubbling over at lunch Sunday about the possibility that his candidate could surprise everyone in Tuesday night's presidential primary.
“We’ve got a chance -- a real chance -- to finish second,” said Sununu. “Even a close third would be good. Either way, it'll carry John into the next round. We are already getting ready for South Carolina.”
Conversations on the ground with campaign insiders in New Hampshire have revealed that Kasich has done the most to separate himself from the pack in the wake of Saturday night's debate. While the situation remains fluid, three separate campaign entities, not all of which are aligned with Kasich, say that according to internal polls, he has risen to a strong second place behind Donald Trump.
"We had a very good surge -- it was of an extent that I'm nervous about it," said one source close to Kasich.
A poor debate performance by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appears to have created an opportunity for Kasich.
National reporters and handlers are comparing the two on the stump. Kasich, a policy wonk and former congressman with deep knowledge of the issues, interacts with voters easily and at length during New Hampshire town hall meetings, of which he has held more than 100 in the past year.
Rubio, as he did during Saturday night's debate, tends to repeat canned lines. He takes few questions and claims he is in a hurry to get to the next event. But then he hangs around to take selfies with what seems like the whole crowd.
Joe McQuaid, a studious sort who is the publisher of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, disparaged Rubio’s lack of detailed speeches and policy discussions. By most accounts, he almost chose to endorse Kasich before settling on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie savaged Rubio in the debate. It hasn’t seemed to help Christie in the polls, but it may have given Kasich an opening.
“We’ve got a real shot to make news,” said Sununu. “We’re where we want to be.”