CONTOOCOOK, N.H. – In the year of the angry candidate and the even angrier voter, John Kasich stands out as the self-proclaimed “prince of light and hope.”
As Kasich instructed voters at a town hall meeting here — his second in this town, population 1,444 — “If you want to just yell and scream at the other side, you should not vote for me. ... Don’t vote for me.”
Little about Kasich’s campaign message is standard political operating procedure. He is more apt to mention God than he is his Democratic opponents, much less his Republican ones.
“This is not a political speech — this is a life talk,” Kasich told workers at a warehouse in the town of Bow, observing that “the Lord has put his hand on me for some reason. But he’s got his hand on everybody in this room if you let him.” Then he wondered, “What do you think? Am I out of my mind here telling you this stuff?”
His style is folksy and meandering, bordering at times on goofy. One minute he’s talking about streamlining government regulations, the next he’s musing about parking. “You ever notice, you’re at a crowded mall and somebody’s getting ready to back out. And you’re waiting there? Did you ever notice how long it takes them to leave that space? Huh?”
Kasich has a reputation for prickliness, yet he seems the happiest warrior on the 2016 campaign trail, with a message that is distinctly populist and bipartisan. The Kasich stump speech invariably begins with his roots: his mailman father, his coal-miner grandfather who died of black lung, his grandmother who could barely speak English.
“I come from a blue-collar Democrat town, and all the people I grew up with, most of them are doing exactly what you’re doing,” Kasich told the workers in Bow. “So ... who do you think I respond to? You, or rich people?”
If elected, “my job is to make sure that the lives of people just like you get better,” Kasich said. “I happen to be a Republican, but so what? The Republican Party is my vehicle, not my master.”
If any state is made for Kasich, it is New Hampshire, where independent voters make up the biggest chunk of likely voters — more than 40 percent — and are free to vote in either primary. In addition, even in this angry year, this is not a particularly angry state; unemployment is down to 3.1 percent.
All of this presents a potential opening for Kasich, one that may be bearing fruit. He is running second in the Real Clear Politics average of polls in the state, although far behind Trump and closely bunched with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
One measure of his tenuous new stature: Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush, just launched a television ad attacking Kasich as “wrong on New Hampshire issues.” The harder challenge, if Kasich were to do well here, lies ahead, but that’s a headache Kasich would be delighted to suffer. The theory of the Kasich case is to do well enough to pick up delegates along the Southern coast;, concentrate on Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont and Tennessee among Super Tuesday states, and aim to score big in Michigan the following week.
Kasich is only a moderate, rhetorically and politically, in the acid context of the current Republican Party. As Ohio’s governor, he tried to strip public-employee unions of bargaining rights and signed a law banning abortion after 20 weeks — but also accepted the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.
Asked in Contoocook about his approach to health care, Kasich spent four minutes discussing methods of paying doctors and hospitals for above-average performance — without mentioning Obamacare, much less denouncing it. (For the record, as he hastened to say when I noted this to him afterward, he’s against it.)
At a senior citizen center in Concord, a voter lamented the presence of “millions of illegals” in the country, asking, “What is your plan to deport them?”
Kasich didn’t try to soften the blow of disagreement. “I wouldn’t,” he said. “It’s never going to happen. ... There is no practical way to go searching neighborhoods, grabbing people out of their homes.”
If he fails to produce a strong showing in the primary here Feb. 9, Kasich acknowledged, “I’m pretty well done — I am done.” Still, he said, “We’ve raised the bar in this election. I’ve talked about hope and the future and positive things and a can-do attitude. ... So whatever you do, even if you don’t love me, I love you. How’s that?”
Pretty refreshing actually.