Peacocks strutted around the lawns of the Milleridge Inn as a small crowd wandered into the Jericho, New York restaurant on Friday.
The people passed the birds as they headed inside to hear and pose questions to Ohio governor John Kasich, the latest Republican candidate to have his policies plucked by MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews.
Kasich (63) was campaigning for votes in Long Island ahead of the state’s key primary on Tuesday.
John Kasich is definitely not the peacock in the Republican field. The screeching, swaggering bird is, of course, brash billionaire Donald Trump.
Trump would likely view Texas senator Ted Cruz as the cuckoo, intruding in Trump's recently won state nests, or as the magpie, stealing shiny delegates that will likely rob the showy reality TV star of the votes he needs to secure the Republican nomination.
Kasich is more like a wren, a king of the birds who believes he will come out on top at a contested convention in Cleveland in his home state in July.
With each passing contest, this seems the route the Republican party is destined for, given how Trump may struggle to reach the required 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. Kasich is circling the later ballots.
In his lively interview with Matthews, the governor preferred a different metaphor to describe the three Republican candidates.
"There's Coke, there's Pepsi and there's Kasich," he said, likening voters to shoppers browsing an aisle and coming across him, "the un-cola," a drink they haven't tried before and still don't know enough about it.
The second-term governor, who served 18 years in
, lacks the fizz of his rivals. Against the negativity and vitriol peddled by Trump and Cruz, Kasich is Mr Positive, running a kooky campaign focused on touchy-feely and town halls. He chooses hugs over hate, literally.
At an event in South Carolina in February, a young man described how he had emerged from a dark point in his life by finding hope in God and friends, and now "in my presidential candidate that I support".
“I’d really appreciate one of those hugs you’ve been talking about,” said Brett Smith (21), referring to the struggling voters Kasich has embraced along the campaign trail. The video of the encounter went viral.
Kasich occupies a rare middle-ground for a Republican candidate. So much so that the Jericho town hall even attracted a Hillary Clinton supporter.
"He has a really nice persona. He seems like a compassionate conservative," said Jane Boum (58), director of a New York City law firm.
Where other Republicans want border walls and religious tests to keep immigrants out, Kasich sees a path to legalisation for the “undocumented”.
Where rivals want a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s legalisation of same-sex marriage, the Catholic-turned-Anglican has said that “I’m for moving on”.
He has pitched himself as the can-do candidate, pointing to his experience in foreign policy and balancing federal budgets.
Though a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, Kasich rejects radicalism, saying things can only be fixed if people come together. He preaches that voters are Americans before they are Democrats or Republicans.
“He is not Donald Trump,” said Joanne Ayers (62), a financial analyst, explaining why she likes Kasich. “He has run a very different campaign, a compassionate approach. He’s not, to use a better word, outrageous.”
“I am a hugger,” she adds.
Despite the hugs, Republicans have not really embraced Kasich back. He has won only one contest out of 32 – his home state of Ohio – and has just 143 delegates, less a 10th awarded.He trails Trump by almost 600 delegates and Cruz by more than 400.
What keeps him in the race is his appeal with secular Republicans who dominate voting in New York, and in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware on April 26th. Kasich is polling second in New York.
Kasich’s electability in November’s election also explains his staying power. He is the only Republican who consistently beats Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, in hypothetical match-ups.
“What, are we going to pick someone who can’t win? I mean, that would be nuts,” Kasich said, dismissing calls from Trump and Cruz to drop out.
In his "Two Paths" speech in Manhattan this week, Kasich warned about the dangerous path Trump could bring the country down: that he "could drive America down into a ditch, not make us great again".
He hopes he can sell himself as the viable, reasonable alternative at the convention, and that delegates will see his value where the voters have not.
“His strength is that he is going to be more realistic to everybody’s needs across the board and not just to one group of people,” said Douglas Shunk (48), a builder, heading inside.
But Shunk, like others at Kasich’s event, is still undecided. He likes Trump’s stance on immigration.
The billionaire, if the polls are accurate, is heading for a landslide in New York and a fresh boost to his campaign.
Trump’s bright feathers and raucous calls are still captivating many, despite Kasich’s best low-key efforts.