You see him here. You see him there. You just don’t see Ohio Gov. John Kasich inside the GOP convention hall.
The Republican governor has notably taken a pass on appearing at the convention in his home state, turning down what should be a prominent role because of his long-standing objection to Donald Trump’s candidacy.
But that doesn’t mean Kasich, one of the last Republican presidential candidates to get crushed by Trump’s party takeover, is absent. He’s ubiquitous: at hotels speaking to state delegations, a banquet hall with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gabbing with Chris Matthews on MSNBC.
Kasich is holding a shadow convention, just outside the thick security perimeter of the real one in downtown Cleveland.
While speakers inside the convention hall place mock handcuffs on Hillary Clinton and cheer at the dream of a Mexican border wall, Kasich stands behind a Lucite lectern at a staid downtown think tank, quoting Scripture and telling men in suits about America’s obligation to lead the world.
Trump’s campaign has fired back; its chairman this week called Kasich’s absence “embarrassing.”
To Republican delegates and activists, especially those supporting Trump, it’s all a bit baffling.
“He’s a good man and a bad host,” said Bobby Kalotee, a county GOP official from New York who was chatting with fellow politicos at a downtown hotel lobby. “You do not invite guests to your home and not be at your home.”
Gregory Peterson, a New York delegate, called the behavior “childish” and “petulant.”
“In politics, winning counts,” he said. “After you’ve lost, that’s a test of character. You’ve got to be a big boy now.”
Those who know Kasich say it’s not surprising; he likes defying the crowd and may still be thinking about running for president again. Kasich, who declined questions at an event and an interview request submitted to his staff, insists the snub is not personal. He has yet to endorse Trump and said that will not change unless he sees evidence of a genuine conversion from the brash candidate.
“I’m not here to disrupt. I’m not here to criticize,” he said in the MSNBC interview. “I’m just here because I’m standing on the things that I believe are best for the country.”
I’m just here because I’m standing on the things that I believe are best for the country.
“The terrible thing is Americans are faced — increasingly, I hear from people — with no choice,” he added. “They are not keen on Trump and they don’t like Hillary either. It’s a vexing situation.”
Asked to give those Americans some advice, Kasich said he had none.
During his appearance at the International Republican Institute think tank this week, Kasich spent 15 minutes praising globalism, free trade, immigration expansion, cooperation with European allies and supporting emerging democracies around the world, all issues on which he disagrees with Trump.
Then he described a world very much like the one Trump has often described, with stronger barriers between nations and less U.S. involvement in other countries’ affairs.
“What does that stew look like?” Kasich asked derisively. “I’m very worried about it.”
“We think NATO doesn’t matter?” he said at another point, as if holding an imaginary debate with Trump, who has called the alliance outdated.
He made an oblique reference to the Republican convention, teasing a member of the audience who expressed support for the recent vote by Britons to leave the European Union.
The appearances in Cleveland this week are in line with Kasich’s presidential run. He did not have the money for a big organization or the crowds needed for big rallies. Instead he held town halls, everywhere, telling voters to embrace their higher purpose and giving out hugs to people who told him they were hurting.
In a race dominated by Trump’s dark vision of an America that was losing, Kasich stood out, both for his optimism and his embrace of government solutions to problems. The small crowds liked Kasich, but the voters chose Trump.
If Kasich wants to run for president again, he is taking a gamble. Ohio is a key swing state, and some in the party may harbor resentment if they believe Kasich is damaging Trump’s campaign. Other Republicans could rally to him for sticking to principle, particularly if Trump loses.
“John Kasich has a history of charting a unique course and he’s somewhat impervious to being pushed around by party elders and lobbyists and people like that,” said Curt Steiner, a veteran political consultant and friend who supported Kasich’s presidential run.
So far, Kasich is not paying a political price in his home state, because the party remains so divided, said Jim Nathanson, another Ohio-based GOP consultant. That could change, closer to November.
“As the party slowly galvanizes behind Trump, there will be more pressure on him,” Nathanson said.
How will Kasich respond? “I never, ever try to guess what John’s going to do,” Steiner said.