John Kasich doesn't need an exclamation point in his logo. Riding around New Hampshire on his campaign bus -- a blend of camper, office and food court -- the Ohio governor was so charged up last week that even when he sat down to talk, he remained coiled, as if ready to jump into action if we got a flat tire.
During his last presidential foray, in 2000, he was so unknown outside Washington that voters thought that he'd come to an event "to shovel the snow." Running as a compassionate conservative, he ran smack into another better-financed one named George W. Bush and quickly dropped his bid.
This time, he's got enough money. What's more, there's lots of money being spent against him on ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina suggesting that compassionate conservative really means "Obama Republican" (a reference to Kasich's decision to accept federal Medicaid expansion funds as part of Obamacare). "Imagine," he says smiling, "I'm enough of a threat they're going negative on me."
As we rolled along to his 100th town hall in the Granite State, I saw traces of the 26-year-old who won a seat in the Ohio state legislature and then won a U.S. House race in 1982, the only Republican to beat an incumbent Democrat.
Hard to peg even then, he was an insider's outsider -- challenging the leadership but eventually becoming part of it as one of the youngest chairmen of the House Budget Committee, where he was famous for his perfect recall of every line item. Although best known for balancing the budget, he broke from the leadership on occasion: He voted for an assault-weapons ban, to cut production of the B-2 bomber and supported President Bill Clinton's effort on welfare reform. He pushed corporate welfare reform, too.
New Hampshire takes him back to his first campaign crossing Ohio's small towns in his red Chevette. Kasich's platform now is simple -- "to bring the Ohio formula to America." He's running on experience, the kind that the Republican governors at the Republican debate on Saturday hammered Senator Marco Rubio for not having. "Experience gives credibility to what you're going to do next," he said.
In his first term as governor, Kasich tackled the state's crippling debt and joblessness. He reduced unemployment to 4.2 percent from 9.7 percent, turned a $2 billion deficit into an $8 billion surplus, and restored the rainy day fund from pennies to $2 billion -- all while increasing services, lowering taxes and luring new business to the state.
His one big mistake: In 2011, he sought a referendum to approve a measure restricting public employees' collective bargaining rights. He lost, and admitted that he had been wrong. He went around making up with the unions and won their support in 2014 (and much more: he received 65 percent of the vote). Friends say that the ballot referendum and the death of his parents in a drunk-driving accident have made him less pugnacious, more thoughtful and, improbably, a good listener, the secret of a successful town hall.
And so it was that on Friday, Kasich pulled into Bedford, one of New Hampshire's postcard-perfect towns. Arriving to U2's "Beautiful Day" (if it were up to him, the music would always be Pearl Jam or Pink Floyd), he reeled off facts to a jam-packed room. He got the usual questions. He aced one about the polluted water in Flint, Michigan, a problem he faced in Ohio but leapt on more quickly than Michigan's governor. He made asides, some of them funny. He imitated former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will do a tele-town hall with him later, to dismiss the negative ads: "Luuuuuv the beating." The cake was three-layered, red, white and blue. A few gallons of Rocky Road and it would have been an ice cream social.
There's nothing elite about Kasich who, along with his heart, wears the neighborhood in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, where his father carried the mail, on his sleeve. He's aware that a few twists of fate and he could be in the audience and not the one speaking.
Some people come to town halls to be convinced, others to be reassured, others to kick the tires. By the end, the 500 who came Friday night were all cheering. Of course, it could be the sugar high, but they all seemed to leave happier than they arrived.
Sure, being a compassionate conservative is a bad rap for Republicans these days. But they should remember that in 2012, Mitt Romney lost the "cares about people like you" vote to Barack Obama by 81 percent. In November, Kasich will have two big assets his party needs: a shot at a chunk of that 81 percent and Ohio.
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