Even before last week, you might have thought the Republican presidential field had something for every right-of-center taste.

It had solid but sleepy Jeb Bush; energetic but untested Marco Rubio; combative but rigid Scott Walker; intriguing but erratic Rand Paul; candid but revolting Donald Trump — among other variations. But it’s the recent dive into this free-for-all of Ohio Gov. John Kasich that at last yields a candidate for Americans with truly exotic preferences.

Kasich is substantial. And interesting. And if the GOP doesn’t at least take a careful look at him as a nominee, it will be further evidence that this is a party with some kind of death wish.

Nobody in Minnesota may know Kasich better — especially Kasich as a practical policymaker and political bridge-builder — than Tim Penny, the former centrist Democratic congressman from southeastern Minnesota and later an Independence Party candidate for governor. Penny could hardly think more highly of Kasich.

“I hope he can make it through the thicket,” Penny says, adding that a President Kasich “would be a great leader . … He’s a get-it-done kind of guy” who would “focus on the important issues and try to create an environment in which those issues could be addressed.”

Calling Kasich “my good and dear friend” whom “I love … like a brother,” Penny reveals much about both men when he says their “real bonding experience” was a crusade they led together as congressmen more than 20 years ago — a stirring, pulse-pounding struggle on behalf of … deficit reduction.

In fact, what was called the “Penny-Kasich” budget bill of 1993 was one of the first serious challenges to our era’s business-as-usual, borrow-from-the-future, fiscal fecklessness in Washington. Developed through a disciplined and fair bipartisan process that Penny says was emblematic of the way Kasich operates, the debt-defying measure was bold enough to be decried as “dangerous” by the New York Times but credible enough to come within a handful of votes of passing.

And even in failing, Penny believes, plausibly, that effort “put the fear of God into the establishment” and “changed the budget debate in Washington.”

Penny left Congress soon thereafter. But Kasich stayed, and as chair of the House Budget Committee waged more battles for spending restraint — including a bipartisan campaign against the wasteful B-2 bomber — helping to produce a few years of balanced federal budgets toward the end of the Bill Clinton administration.

Kasich left after 18 years in Congress and spent the better part of a decade in private life, playing (fortunately) minor roles at Lehman Brothers and on Fox News. But in 2010, answering what he unashamedly describes as God’s purpose for his life, he ran for governor in Ohio, unseating a Democratic incumbent by riding that year’s libertarian Tea Party wave.

Penny believes that “among all the governors running, there’s more credibility to John’s claims of achievement.” Kasich’s record certainly will provoke debate, not least because its two headline events reflect the complexity of his political personality.

On one hand was Kasich’s early but abortive championing of Walker-esque legislation to crimp public employee unions’ collective-bargaining rights, which was quickly and decisively repealed through a voter referendum. On the other hand was Kasich’s decision to accept the federally funded expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare — virtual treason to GOP partisans, but simply in the best interests of his state, according to Kasich, especially its most vulnerable.

Cleaning up Ohio’s post-Great Recession budget mess was of course the key work that played to Kasich’s experience and passion. Cuts to local government aids were key (along with increased budgeting flexibility for those governments). He has cut income taxes but raised other taxes. The tough budget medicine, along with an improving economy, has put Ohio’s finances back in the black.

He’s “fixed it honestly,” Penny argues.

With luck, Kasich’s presidential bid will gain enough momentum that his gubernatorial record will be thoroughly scrutinized. Meantime, Ohio voters’ verdict last fall was clear enough. They re-elected Kasich with 64 percent of the vote, and he carried 86 of 88 counties, including Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County.

Yes, Kasich’s opponent may have been weak, but such vote-getting prowess in what may be the most pivotal of states should interest Republicans who are actually concerned with winning the 2016 election. Only two presidential elections in the last century have been won without carrying Ohio, and none since 1960.

One challenge within the GOP may be that while Kasich is plenty conservative on many scores, he voices insistent concern for the poor and vulnerable and a determination to bring conservative policy ideas to bear on their problems. Prison reform and help for ex-cons re-entering society have been high on his list. He’s open to a path to normalization for illegal immigrants.

And whereas even Penny admits that Kasich “has been described as brash,” he’s actually been described in various recent news profiles as “something of a jerk” and in need of “anger management.” Though it’s hard to stand out for abrasiveness in the current GOP field, there’s going to be a lively market in synonyms for “prickly” if Kasich’s run lasts.

Fact is, a story being widely told curiously brings together Kasich’s hard-edged and soft-hearted sides. It seems that last year he was challenged about expanding Medicaid at a conference sponsored by the Koch brothers. Kasich’s response, which reportedly stunned the audience: “I don’t know about you, lady, but when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”

The gruff religiosity, the compassionate conservatism and the bring-it-on bluntness are all notable, potentially appealing and potentially problematic.

“The more you know him, the more you love him,” Penny says of Kasich. America should welcome the chance to test that theory.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.