By Darrel Rowland

Exactly three weeks before the nation's first presidential primary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich became the first GOP candidate not named Trump to reach 20 percent in any independent poll of New Hampshire this year.

In by far his best showing of the campaign, the new survey shows Kasich within 7 points of longtime leader Donald Trump. Even more important for the governor, he put distance between himself and his fellow "establishment lane" contenders, none of whom got more than 10 percent.

While the New Hampshire-based American Research Group survey could be undercut by results from a rival poll on Wednesday that the Kasich team anticipates will have them bunched in a pack well behind Trump, his advisers say the overall trend -- the Ohio governor is on the move -- is what's important.

He is virtually tied with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for second in telephone polls taken over the past month in the state that, in less than three weeks, will hold America's first presidential primary.

"I think this is where the ground game really matters, and I think we have one of the best ground games ever seen in this state," Kasich said after touring the Henniken Brewing Co. in the town of the same name -- and emptying his 4-ounce "sample."

Kasich is spending more than a week straight in the Granite State, where he has staked his longshot White House bid. Today, he takes his turn speaking before the New Hampshire House of Representatives before heading north to the area around where 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney has his summer home.

Kasich told a crowd of a little more than 100 at the American Legion post near Hopkinton that he's having the most fun of his political career, with his whirlwind of town halls where he gives a short speech before taking questions from the audience.

When asked whether his campaign will make it as far as the Ohio primary on March 15, he told them: "It's up to you whether I have a chance to be heard."

Kasich drew an increasing contrast with fellow GOP candidates by refusing to spend part of each talk ripping President Barack Obama and the leading Democrat, Hillary Clinton. And the governor says he won't try to match the anger, gloom and doom peddled by some Republicans.

"We've raised the bar in this election," he said.

At the same time, in this year of the outsider, the candidate with the longest government resume is emphasizing how he has been a longtime agitator. Kasich talks about taking on powerful nursing homes in Ohio and defense contractors in Washington.

"Do you know how many people I made mad with that one?" Kasich said of his successful effort to sharply reduce the number of B-2 bombers made in the 1990s.

After his brewery tour, Kasich was asked about his statement on Monday calling some Ohio legislative leaders "thugs." He said the reference was to Democrats early in his tenure who are no longer in office.

"We had leaders in the Ohio House who basically told their people to stay away from me. I mean, it's not good," he said.

When asked whether he could have chosen his words better, Kasich would only say, "It's all done. I'm not interesting in talking about it any further. I'm just telling you that we cannot fix problems in Ohio or in the country if we just are polarized, divided and we can't work together."

(c)2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)