Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s first ad in the crucial presidential primary state of New Hampshire opens with the little-known candidate emerging calmly from a cacophony of shrill voices and grainy pictures of his competitors, and then he promises to “look out for other people.”
The tone, and the $5 million spent at a time when few other candidates are airing ads, proved timely in reaching voters seeking an antidote to the angry and outsized personal politics of Republican front-runner Donald Trump. And it has helped Kasich become a surprising factor in the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire, further complicating efforts by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to win a clean sweep of the state's large group of establishment and moderate Republicans.
Like the rest of the field, Kasich has been overshadowed by Trump’s mega-moment. But he is having a moment of his own, solidifying key endorsements and rising to second place behind Trump in the latest poll of New Hampshire Republican primary voters drawn to his blunt style -- which he frequently reminds audiences about.
During numerous town hall meetings in New Hampshire, he has employed the language of morality and purpose to describe his political beliefs, recalling the evangelical author and pastor Rick Warren, with echoes of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”
“Somebody told me the other day, ‘Well, I’m a conservative, but I have a big heart,’” Kasich said during a phone interview this week amid a California fundraising trip. “I said, ‘Why don’t we change the way you say that?’”
Kasich is using one quality he shares with Trump -- a sense of unpredictability -- in an attempt to stand out.
His main talking point is that he has no talking points, something he said twice in five minutes during a recent exchange with reporters.
“They’re whatever comes into my head, OK?” he said of his comments on the campaign trail.
A minute later, Kasich delivered a winding monologue about the cruelty of extremist group Islamic State and his shock that Americans have tried to join it “because some of them have lost meaning in their life and they’re searching for it desperately.”
The talk of Islamic State and the battle of ideas went on before Kasich interrupted himself to make another point -- about Kasich himself and the fact that his campaign is atypical.
“Haven’t you figured that out?” he said, arguing with no one in particular.
“I’m not like stuck anywhere. I don’t have a teleprompter. I don’t have talking points. I mean I study issues. People used to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s undisciplined.’ Do you think I have been? ... I’m having a ball.”
And so it went.
Charles F. Bass, a former New Hampshire congressman who has not endorsed a candidate, said Kasich has surprised him by drawing interest from the type of hard-to-reach voters who do not usually pay close attention at this stage of the race. “The ads were good,” Bass said. “When you have a huge crowd of people in a primary, television advertising is very effective, particularly when no one else is doing it.”
Many political observers believe Bush has the most to lose from Kasich’s rise.
“They cut similar profiles in terms of record and tone,” said Fergus Cullen, a former state party chairman who has not endorsed anyone. “Kasich is a current governor, not a governor from a decade ago, and Kasich has a new last name and not a name that people are already familiar with.”
Peter Taylor, a retired facilities manager who attended a recent town hall with Kasich at an Elks Lodge in Salem, N.H., that drew about 100 people, said he liked Bush. “But I don’t think Jeb can get elected.”
Kasich, he said, “is the one, definitely.”
Kasich offers a conservative message that predates the tea party movement: He’d like to shrink government and do away with regulations, including some of the Wall Street rules enacted after the financial crisis. But he does not want to eliminate the federal government altogether. Kasich worked as an executive at Lehman Brothers from 2001 until the 2008 collapse of the firm, an event that helped jump-start the economic crisis. That experience could cause him political problems if he comes closer to winning the nomination.
His philosophy plays better in New Hampshire than in states with more conservative Republican voting bases. Kasich accepted federal money to expand Medicaid in his state as part of the Affordable Care Act, infuriating the law’s opponents. He supports the Common Core education standards that have become wildly unpopular with many core Republicans. And he has resisted harsh immigration rhetoric, while embracing a plan to provide legal status for people in this country illegally.
Kasich bristled in an interview at the moderate label, recounting efforts to cut taxes in his state, deregulate the federal government, and -- during his 18 years in Congress -- to balance the budget during the Clinton administration.
“What is it I don’t understand that isn’t conservative about that?” he said. “As I’m telling people, I want practical solutions based on conservative principles.”
His long record has made it difficult for him to bend to meet the changing mores of his party. On immigration, for example, he has already changed positions over the years, making another shift politically difficult.
He once opposed a legal path for immigrants in the country illegally and supported revoking automatic citizenship for children born to them. In recent years he has recanted those positions.
“What I’m trying to promote is something that’s realistic and doable,” he said.
On other issues, including abortion, he is fairly conservative. But it’s his tone and style that sets him apart. In an era of government shutdowns, he is talking about himself as a compromiser. During his town hall meeting at the Elks Club, he mentioned “Gary Hart, Democrat, one of the smartest people I ever worked with” in describing his efforts to reorganize the Department of Defense in the 1980s.
“I’m a conservative with conservative principles, but you just can’t do it alone,” he said.
Kasich is also trying to control a sharp temper that has given him something of a reputation. The New York Times recently recounted a moment during a town hall in which he called out a questioner on climate change for carrying an agenda.
At the Elks Club, he hugged an activist calling for an expansion of Social Security -- which he opposes -- and commended a 20-year-old climate change activist “because you have to stand up for something,” even as he conceded his state was not meeting a promise to generate 25% of its energy from renewable and alternative sources. The younger activist said afterward that she was thrown off by the praise, and frustrated that he dodged her question.
Kasich insists he is not worried about Trump’s current hold on his party’s discourse.
“I do politics like I play golf,” he said. “I pay no attention to anyone else. I just play the best game I can.”
He was reminded that Trump owns many of the nation’s golf courses. "Not the golf course I play on," he said.