John Kasich has New Hampshire all to himself, and he knows it’s not going to last. So there he was Sunday, the man who has held more events in New Hampshire than any other Republican presidential candidate, trying to hone movement into momentum.
The other candidates were slogging out in Iowa through the final hours before Monday’s caucuses, and none was due to arrive here before Monday afternoon, eight days before the state’s primary. The Ohio governor was holding his 85th and 86th New Hampshire town halls, after three on Saturday.
His most direct competitors among the party’s establishment-oriented candidates -- former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio -- are hoping a success in Iowa, a miracle for some, will propel them here. For Kasich there won’t be a bungee cord snap out of the Midwest. He will win it or lose it in New Hampshire, and a win would come only if events magically combine to reach some critical mass.
So he is here campaigning, taking questions from the high school student in Salem who wants to know what he would do about climate change, and the healthcare worker who feels like he has a better solution to Ebola than the U.S. government, and the older man who has some very specific ideas about political strategy -- “Make Bill Clinton the lightning rod…. We don’t want to look at him for eight years.”
And he is taking a question at a town hall in Bow from 12-year-old Emily, who wants to know how he would prevent terrorists from taking one more American life.
Her question is a like a fat and easy pitch lofted directly at a presidential candidate’s bat, offering Kasich an enticing opportunity to knock President Obama and rev up the fear that has come to define this presidential campaign. Except he lets it pass.
He asks if she is worried. He tells her about the nation’s law enforcement structure, set up to prevent terrorism here.
“When they hear bad people doing stuff, they disrupt them … and they try to protect us and they do a really, really good job,” he said. “Nothing is 100%, sweetheart, in this world, but I believe [that] very strongly.”
Maybe he underestimated her knowledge -- at 12, she probably knew there was a Pakistan and that the pyramids were in Egypt, though he asked her. Still, his response was freighted with concern.
“But I don’t want you to worry about this,” he said. “I want you to worry about your math, your English, your computing. What do you want to be when you grow up? An archaeologist? Then you’ve got to go to the pyramids!”
To see Kasich in New Hampshire is to see a throwback squared. He holds town hall after town hall, riding the hilly two-lane roads of New Hampshire in a straining bus, only to do it all over again two hours later, the way campaigns here used to do it before the rise of the celebrity candidate and prodigious super PACs. He is by turns goofy and serious, with a penchant for old-style jokes, like a “Let’s Make a Deal” host leading a political campaign.
What he wants to do if he gets to the White House is another throwback. Donald Trump engages in a running mockery of all things Washington; Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, brags that no one in Washington likes him, as if that were an indictment of them, not him.
Kasich is sentimental about his time in Washington as a member of Congress, days when both sides fought, compromised and then went out to shoot some hoops. He describes this as if his is the last memory of a civilization that vanished before his audience was born.
“We extended the life of Social Security,” he said midway through his town hall in Bow. “How did it happen? Republicans and Democrats said, ‘We’re not going to let this thing go away.’ We did it and there was no demagoguery.”
Yes, that was a long time ago.
Kasich’s town halls are decidedly low-brow. There are flags and an automated debt clock -- on Sunday, the per-person bill coming due was closing in on $59,000 -- a couple of endorsers like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Kasich himself, surrounded by a few hundred New Hampshirites.
“Are we in a good mood today? Are we having a lot of fun?” he asks in Salem, then quickly veers off in a Kasich way: David Bowie (“Anybody here know David Bowie?”) How he once sat with someone at a Cleveland speech who’d told him he had snuck out of his room to see the Beatles and the man said his mother “beat the living daylights out of me but it was worth it all.” How George Harrison once invited Eric Clapton to his house for breakfast and demanded that he come before dawn (at which point Kasich invited a fur-hatted troubadour who follows him around to sing a few lines of “Here Comes the Sun.”)
And then back to the campaign. It says something about Kasich’s relatively new rise to minimal prominence that he’s still introducing himself to voters here: that he is the son of a mailman, the grandson of a coal miner who would come home from work with some of his lunch because “there were a lot of kids,” about his grandmother’s inability to speak English.
Then it was on to what he would do as president, including sending welfare and Medicaid back to the states, creating jobs, a one-year ban on regulations.
“You don’t mind regulations, as long as they’re not goofy?” he asked the crowd.
Notable in his pitch is the lack of red meat that provides a full meal for the rest of the Republican field this year. In both Salem and Bow on Sunday he emphasized his support for a path to legal status for immigrants in the country without legal authorization, which other candidates have raced to avoid mentioning.
“If they haven’t committed a crime since they’ve been here, we’ll make them pay a fine and put them on a path to legalization because we’re not deporting eleven and a half million people,” he said in Salem.
There, he takes a question from a high school student whose father is recording him -- a rite of passage in New Hampshire, this -- and jokes that in 10 years the kid will wish he’d gotten a haircut.
But he offers up an answer to the student that’s another 180 away from what the other candidates will say.
“Do I believe that human beings affect the climate? I do,” he said, and goes on to talk about the need to develop renewable energy and make the use of power more efficient. And then off he veers. His friend has a Tesla.
“It’s the coolest car I’ve ever seen! There’s no engine!”
Kasich ran for president once before, a campaign that was notable for its excesses of bowling in Iowa and mushing sled dogs in New Hampshire, but also for its brevity: He was out by the summer of 1999, a good half year before the first votes were taken in the 2000 campaign.
Whether voters are remembering his failure last time or are just worrying about whether a reasonable man can be trusted to whack the opponent in November, the subject of Kasich’s demeanor does come up. One man in Salem asked him: Since you’re a gentleman, how will you “expose” Hillary Clinton?
Another forwarded the notion of making Bill Clinton the lightning rod -- and, he said, he was in a bowling alley the other day and every single person in it was supporting Kasich.
“You know what, that might be the most compelling thing I’ve ever heard,” Kasich replied, after the man had also suggested Kasich contact all the state’s Congregational churches, since their leader was from Ohio.
“Where is the bowling alley?”
Not everyone in every bowling alley is supporting him, to be sure. He has new endorsements to brag about, from the New York Times and the Boston Globe, although he hastens to add that more important to him are the seven endorsements he has received from New Hampshire papers.
While that has been a traditional marker of viability, it’s not clear how endorsements will play to a Republican electorate that seems intent on upending anything resembling the establishment in this campaign year.
And in any case, a new University of New Hampshire poll was released during Kasich’s event in Bow: Trump 30%, Cruz 12%, Rubio 11%, Kasich 9%. It came out about the time Kasich was explaining why he wasn’t in Iowa, why he was here in New Hampshire, trolling by himself for votes.
“Not enough resources,” he said. Then he added: “I’ll tell you why I came here. Because of this. This is it. Six minutes in a debate -- you can’t learn what anybody’s like. But you come here and you look and you poke, once in a while you smell and you try to decide: Is this our leader?”
“I believe in this process. I believe the folks in New Hampshire are the best screeners America can have.”
But he’d like the state a lot better, he said, if he won.