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After Late Entry to Race, Kasich Turns to Life Story to Connect With Voters

Jack Rodolico
Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks to reporters after a town-hall style forum at the Portsmouth Country Club.

Ohio Governor John Kasich wraps up a three-day swing through New Hampshire today, his first stretch of campaigning since officially joining the race for the Republican presidential nomination this week.

In front of crowds in Nashua and the Seacoast, Kasich’s stump speech was essentially an annotated version of his life story -- a  weaving together of what he calls his record of working across party lines with a personal history rooted firmly in the middle class.

  Kasich says he was raised in a Democratic household in rural Pennsylvania. His father’s collar was literally blue; he was a mail carrier.

When Kasich went to college, in Ohio, he backed into the opportunity of a lifetime: He asked for a meeting with the school president, who wound up hand delivering a letter from Kasich to President Richard Nixon. A few weeks later, Kasich stood outside the Oval Office, where he was told he would have five minutes with the president.

"Let me tell you what I’m thinking," he recounted for a crowd in Nashua Tuesday night. "New jacket, new shirt, new tie, new pants. I didn’t come all this way for five lousy minutes. I ain’t coming out! So just deal with it. So they open up the door and I spend 20 minutes alone with the most powerful man in the world at the age of 18."

And by the way, if you are a Martian...and fearless leader says go take a picture of America, guess where you would go? You would fly over Ohio. Because Ohio is a microcosm of America. - John Kasich

From there Kasich ran for state Senate, then Congress, where he was chair of the powerful House Budget Committee when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton brokered a balanced budget. He later worked for Lehman Brothers, then was elected governor of Ohio in the midst of the Great Recession. He won reelection after balancing the budget there, too.

In campaign stops in New Hampshire over the past two days, Kasich often had crowds roaring with laughter. He easily veered off script, mostly to warm responses from the crowd. At times, even he seemed a little surprised by what came out of his mouth.

"And by the way," he said in Nashua, "if you are a Martian – here’s one for you – and Fearless Leader says go take a picture of America, guess where you’d go? You’d fly over Ohio. Because Ohio is a microcosm of America."

Trying to stand out in a crowded field

Kasich is one of eight former or current Republican governors running for president this year. But he's the only one outspoken about his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Kasich does not support the rest of the federal health law. He says creating jobs is a moral obligation. He favors tightening the Pentagon’s belt without compromising national security. And he’s vocal about government’s responsibility to fund services for people with disabilities, mental illness and addiction.

Dennis and Dorothy Murphy of Nashua like Kasich, and said they’ll support a governor in the race for president because governors are used to being held accountable by their states.

If you are of substance, then your calm waters run deep and that is not what they want. They want the, you know, the flash. - Brigid Cunanan, conservative voter

"I think Kasich is so well rounded from his time in Congress," said Dorothy Murphy, "and he served on all those committees, and then went into the private sector, which is a good thing, and worked. He’s the one that, as far as I can see right now, he’s got my vote."

On many points of policy, Kasich does stand out in the crowded field of GOP contenders. The questions is: Are enough people listening?

Brigid Cunanan didn’t know much about Kasich before seeing him speak in Nashua, and she liked him. But she had concerns about his ability to get his message to voters.

"If you’re of substance," Cunanan said, "then your calm waters run deep and that’s not what they want. They want the, you know, the flash."

Tough odds

Kasich entered the race late – only 17 days before the first Fox News debate on August 6. If he doesn’t poll among the top ten candidates, he won’t be on that stage, which could reinforce the impression that he's a long shot candidate. His absence from the debate could be particularly embarrassing, considering that it is being held in Ohio.

Kasich didn’t spend much time acknowledging the odds against him to reporters in Portsmouth on Wednesday.

"You know, in life, sometimes it’s about trying," he said. "Am I confident that I can win? Yeah. I mean, if I wasn’t confident, I wouldn’t be running. You know, I’m also Governor of Ohio and I have a record that’s unique among everybody. So we’ll see what happens."

New Hampshire voters should have plenty of chances to see that themselves. Kasich says the state is critical to his path the GOP nomination, and he plans to campaign here a lot.

Before joining NHPR in August 2014, Jack was a freelance writer and radio reporter. His work aired on NPR, BBC, Marketplace and 99% Invisible, and he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and Northern Woodlands.
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