PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — Forget the bombastic Donald. What Republicans really need to win back the White House is someone who has successfully governed a mega swing state, a straight talker who might sometimes tick off the GOP's base but has proven how a conservative problem-solver can have broad appeal.
If that sounds like an argument for Jeb Bush, think again.
It's Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a late entrant into the crowded Republican presidential field, who could pose a real problem for the former Florida governor if he keeps winning over the pragmatic Republican voters that Bush is banking on to deliver him the nomination.
Kasich (pronounced KAY-sik) is virtually tied with Bush in New Hampshire polls — the average compiled by RealClearPolitics.com has Trump with 24.5 percent support, Bush at 11 percent, Kasich at 10, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 7.5 — after the a well-received debate performance earlier this month.
"Thank God for Donald Trump. Twenty-four million people tuned in to see," Kasich quipped at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last week.
If you divide the Republican primary field into lanes — religious conservative, anti-establishment, arch-conservative — Bush, 62, and Kasich, 63, clearly occupy the center-right, establishment lane. They are largely competing for the same voters, and in Peterborough it was easy to see the big opening Bush has left for Kasich.
"I've really got to see more enthusiasm from (Bush). I just don't know that he's got his heart in it yet. Maybe he will, but it doesn't feel like he's that interested in running," said Diane Loomis, a bookkeeper in Hancock, who said Kasich impressed her much more with his enthusiasm, intellect and experience.
Judith Wilkins of Greenville is most interested in Kasich or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, because Bush has turned her off: "He is so intelligent, but I want to shake him and tell him, 'How about some strength, some emoting.' "
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Kasich is no fresh face. He served from 1982 to 2001 in the U.S. House, where he was House Budget Committee chairman and an architect of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. The 18-year member of the Armed Services Committee developed a reputation as a national security hawk who also zealously challenged wasteful defense spending.
After private-sector stints as a Fox News host and Lehman Brothers executive, Kasich was elected Ohio governor in 2010. That was the tea party wave election that also brought Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Wisconsin Gov. Walker into office, but Kasich proved to be a far different kind of governor.
He slashed taxes like Scott and Walker, but he also embraced expanding Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act, something roundly denounced by the rest of the GOP presidential field. Kasich actually clashed with fellow Republicans in the Ohio Legislature, bypassing them to ensure federal funding would provide coverage to some 275,000 uninsured Ohioans.
He makes no apologies on the campaign trail, often sounding at least as animated talking about his state doing a better job helping the mentally ill and drug-addicted as turning a budget hole of at least $6 billion into a $2 billion surplus.
"The working poor, instead of having them come into the emergency rooms where it costs more, where they're sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet. And you know what, everybody has a right to their God-given purpose," Kasich said during this month's Fox News debate when pressed about Medicaid expansion.
He summed up his ideology this way at the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday: "I'm a conservative with a very big heart. . . . They're not mutually exclusive."
Critics see a prickly, holier than thou moderate.
"The only thing Kasich has excelled at in the press is attacking other Republicans claiming Jesus and St. Peter will send them all to hell unless they, too, embrace Obamacare," RedState.com editor Erick Erickson wrote.
Palm Beach resident Gay Gaines, a top GOP fundraiser who had been helping raise money for Rubio and Walker, is now all in for Kasich. Devout Christianity guides Kasich's priorities, and in some cases makes him an unconventional Republican standard-bearer, she said, but that and his "no B.S." style are part of his strength.
"You've got to back somebody who can win," said Gaines, a self-described "staunch conservative" who has known Kasich for decades. "You're never going to find a candidate who is perfect on every issue, but you've got to find a person you can trust."
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Kasich entered the race only a month ago, so it is not yet clear he can mount the kind of national campaign that Bush, who has raised more than $120 million, is planning.
Skeptics say his poll numbers improved in recent weeks merely because a political committee spent about $4 million on TV ads promoting him in New Hampshire. The thinking goes, someone who supports Medicaid expansion and the Common Core educational standards, downplays the abortion issue, supported higher taxes on his state's oil and gas industry, and voted to ban semiautomatic assault weapons in 1994, cannot win the nomination.
But Bush also faces deep skepticism among many Republicans, and Kasich poses a potentially serious threat to him, especially in New Hampshire, which is widely seen as a must-win for both because it is more receptive to moderates.
"John Kasich is open, he's very straight-forward, very plain-spoken and he likes the give and take of town halls. Those are really important things up here," said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a fixture in Granite State politics, who has previously advised Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. He said this year's primary appears more wide open than any in 40 years.
"The Trump phenomena has kept the rest of the field pretty tightly bunched, and that's probably helpful to people like Kasich, who got in pretty late."
At the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday, Rod Koch watched as Rubio flipped pork burgers and lingered as Rubio made the rounds. But Koch, 54, drove more than two hours from Omaha, Neb., to see another candidate.
"I prefer John Kasich. He's a good fiscal conservative," Koch said. "I liked him back in 1999, when he ran the first time, but he wasn't ready. This time around, he's ready. He did some good things in Congress and has apparently done good things in Ohio because he got re-elected overwhelmingly and that's a key state. He should be on the ticket somewhere, but I think he's got the experience to be president."
Iowa polls show Kasich at the back of the pack, with less than 3 percent support, and national polls put him near the back of the pack, too, at about 4 percent. He is not worried, happy to be underestimated.
"First, people didn't think I was going to get in," Kasich said. "Then they said, 'Well, he's getting in too late.' And now they say, 'What a brilliant strategy that he got in late. . . . It's like the little engine who keeps saying it can.' "
Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.