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Why John Kasich is gaining ground in New Hampshire

John Kasich exudes a type of Midwest reasonableness that stands in stark contrast to some of the more ideological firebrands in the Republican field. 

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    In this Spet. 19, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich addresses supporters during a reception at the 2016 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in Mackinac Island, Mich. Kasich is intensifying his presidential campaign in Iowa, touting his fiscal record, and his dance moves, as he vies for support from Republicans who haven’t picked a candidate in the crowded GOP field.
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Today is the first of what I hope to be a regularly recurring feature on this site during the current election cycle: a post recounting a visit to a campaign event put on by one of the major presidential candidates. On Sept. 2, I attended Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s visit to West Lebanon, a small (population about 3,500) community in western New Hampshire, situated along the Connecticut River. Despite a relatively late start in the race, Governor Kasich has emerged as one of the stronger candidates, aided by what was generally perceived as a strong performance in the first Republican debate. Although he’s only at 3.4% in Pollster.com aggregate polls, which puts him in the lower middle of the Republican pack, he’s gaining ground in the crucial state of New Hampshire where he has emerged as Jeb Bush’s primary competition as the Donald Trump alternative.

Kasich’s rise in the New Hampshire polls made the event of particular interest to me. We arrived at the Kilton Public Library to find a standing-room-only crowd, which I estimated at about 200 people. The audience seemed mostly middle-aged and up, with a few wearing shirts emblazoned with Kasich campaign slogan and logo, and there was a bit of a buzz of anticipation. After a short pep-rally style introduction by a local official, Kasich entered to polite applause. He was dressed casually, which fit well with his overall demeanor.

As one might expect with a candidate who is still not particularly well known, Kasich spent the first part of his relatively brief campaign spiel (he talked for maybe 15 minutes before taking questions) recounting his biography, starting with his working-class roots in Pennsylvania, and working his way through his political career beginning as a state senator in Ohio, then his years in Congress, and finally his election as Ohio governor in 2010. The narrative was spiced with some humorous asides, including a tale of Kasich’s meeting with President Richard Nixon. While it is common for presidential candidates to tout their humble roots, the implicit comparison between Kasich’s origins and those of his main New Hampshire rival Jeb! Bush was likely not lost on most audience members.

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Kasich is viewed as a relative moderate among Republicans, a perception that is supported when looking at his primary fundraising sources – a metric that places him close to Bush, Christie, and Pataki on the ideological spectrum. That moderation came across in Wednesday's event when he began discussing, in broad strokes, the themes that animate his campaign. If I had to summarize Kasich’s approach in one word, it would be “balance.” Although clearly pushing conservative ideas, he repeatedly stressed the need to work across the political aisle and to compromise on issues, taking time to tout his own record of budget surpluses and compromise in Congress. In this vein he told an anecdote about his golfing foursome with President Obama, Vice President Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner, after which – according to Kasich – he took each of them aside and asked if they understood what a privilege it was to be in the positions they occupied. Kasich suggested that, at least for a brief period, that type of “we are in this together” thinking came close to leading to a budget breakthrough. (Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that it did NOT produce a breakthrough!)

Kasich repeated this theme in the question-and-answer session that took up most of the event’s time. Perhaps the only discordant note came early in the Q&A when an audience member pressed him somewhat aggressively on Kasich’s previous statements questioning the science underlying theories of climate change. Kasich conceded that some climate change reflected human activity, but he suggested that efforts to combat that change should not come at the expense of economic growth and he stressed the need to keep an open mind. He then used his answer to segue into a discussion about the need to diversify the nation’s power sources, emphasizing both renewable fuels but also nuclear and coal. For the most part, however, the tone of the questions was polite and they ran the gamut from Kasich’s view on fighting ISIS to the Iran nuclear deal to trade policy to restoring economic growth to repealing Obamacare. Kasich did not shy away from giving direct responses to each question although his answers were generally couched in broad strokes rather than specific detail.

Looking at my notes, here is what I recall about his responses, subject to correction by anyone who was there. Although he opposed the Iran nuclear deal, he indicated that as president he would not move to reimpose sanctions unless Iran violated the agreement. He would move toward a greater deregulation of the economy in order to entice more business to locate domestically, rather than overseas, describing himself as “a free trader, but a fair trader.” To spur economic growth, he recommended reducing the deficit budget, ending Dodd-Frank and ending Obamacare. In response to a lengthy question criticizing the role of seniority in Washington, Kasich noted that politicians rarely lose elections because of a wrong vote. Instead, they are voted out when they lose the willingness to lead by making difficult choices on behalf of citizens.

In total, the event lasted about an hour. Kasich came across as affable, even folksy, someone very much at ease on the campaign trail talking to voters. He sprinkled his responses with humorous asides, at one point directing a very young (a five year old?) girl to come up alongside him to ask her question, much to her father’s delight and the crowd’s amusement.

As far as I could tell from my observations and limited questioning (I was only able to talk to two people after Kasich departed), audience members left the event favorably disposed toward Kasich, although that’s not to say he won all their votes. It’s easy to see why he’s rising in the polls there, however. He exudes a type of Midwest reasonableness that stands in stark contrast to some of the more ideological firebrands in the Republican field, and his understated demeanor couldn’t be more different than The Donald’s bombastic persona. But his evenhanded responses should not obscure the fact that Kasich is clearly a conservative – when asked how to deal with ISIS, he responded “Destroy them” (after a lengthy discourse on how ISIS is able find recruits). Nonetheless, it seems clear that he views his chief rival in New Hampshire to be Bush, whose views overlap with his, and who has been spending the last two days on his own campaign trip to the Granite state. It is early in the campaign, and Kasich is still a relative unknown. But I suspect New Hampshire is a state in which he could do well, particularly if Bush and/or Trump falter.

I am tempted to end this post by giving Kasich one of those grades for which Mark Halperin is infamous  (Style: C+. Substance: B-. Overall: A!) Instead, I’ll adopt the Fox News mantra: I report, you decide! 

Until next time, hope to see you on the campaign trail!

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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