GOP debate: What was John Kasich thinking?

In this GOP cycle of the outsider, Ohio Gov. John Kasich went out of his way at the GOP debate Wednesday night to boast of insider status.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Does John Kasich have a strategic plan, and if he does, what is it?

Those are questions that ran through our head every time Ohio Governor Kasich got rolling during the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan library near Los Angeles on Wednesday night.

He spoke well, so this isn’t a comment on his particular debate performance. It’s just that he seemed like such an outlier. Every pundit agrees that this is the GOP cycle of the outsider, with nonpoliticians Donald Trump and Ben Carson now combining for more than 50 percent of Republican voter support in polls. Former CEO Carly Fiorina is rising. Yet Kasich went out of his way to boast of insider status.

In an era when the GOP rank and file appears suspicious of politicians in general and Washington politicians in particular, Kasich went so far as to remind the debate audience that he’d been a member of Congress, and a committee chair at that. This was no accident. In his 30-second introduction, which was presumably preplanned, Kasich gestured at the retired Air Force One that served as the debate’s backdrop.

“I think I actually flew on this plane with Ronald Reagan when I was a congressman, and his goals, and mine ... are pretty much the same,” he said.

Way to remind the audience you’re a career politician, John.

Kasich didn’t get a lot of question time in this debate. He managed to speak for 9-1/2 minutes, according to CNN figures. That’ s about half the time Mr. Trump spent speaking.

When he did speak, he disagreed with points made by the more conservative candidates in the 11-person crowd. He said that promising to rip up the Iran agreement on Day 1 of a presidency is a sign of political inexperience, for instance. He maintained that the United States is stronger when it works with allies, and they wouldn’t approve of such a move.

“I served on the defense committee for 18 years. I’ve seen lots of issues in foreign affairs, and ... in terms of global politics, you have to be steady,” Kasich said.

Nor did he approve of shutting down the government in an effort to cut off federal funds for Planned Parenthood. From a tactical point of view, he said, that just wouldn’t work.

He insisted he knew what he was talking about. “I was in the Congress for 18 years, balanced the budget, cut taxes, got it done,” he said.

Kasich’s problem is that many GOP primary voters think 18 years in Congress is a bad thing, not something to be proud of. Furthermore, the right thinks Kasich is a moderate, 2016’s version of Jon Huntsman.

“Around the country, John Kasich’s core support is made up of tax hiking politicians, social liberals, and failures,” tweeted conservative pundit Erick Erickson on Thursday morning.

What’s Kasich up to? It appears that as much as any other candidate, he’s put all his hopes in one electoral basket. He’s all in for New Hampshire, a state where moderate Republicans still exist and voters might value experience and expedience as much as ideological purity.

His strategy might be summarized as “do well in New Hampshire, and then stand ready to step in as the establishment’s choice if Jeb Bush collapses.”

But Mr. Bush is trying hard to portray himself as a conservative. He did so again on Wednesday night. Kasich doesn’t seem to be emphasizing that part of the equation.

“As for Kasich, he is running a campaign that is assuming the NH GOP electorate exists outside of NH. It’s a gamble,” tweeted NBC News political director Chuck Todd following the debate.

The Ohio governor himself said he’s happy with the way the debate turned out. He told The Columbus Dispatch that he wishes he’d had more airtime, but that his emphasis on town hall meetings in New Hampshire will matter more, in the end.

And he is outperforming his national polls in New Hampshire. He’s currently third in the Granite State with 10.3 percent of the vote, behind Trump and Dr. Carson, according to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys.

Nationally, Kasich is counting on GOP voters tiring of insults and entertainers and turning toward actual experienced politicians who know how to make government work.

“Here’s the bottom line for me: At the end of it all, people want to know if somebody can land the plane,” he told the Dispatch’s Darrel Rowland. “They can have all this talk, but they want to know the plane can be landed.”

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