Tony Dejak / AP

The Unpleasant Charisma of John Kasich

He’s tamed the federal budget and brought Ohio's economy back from the brink. His next target might be the White House—and he could be 2016's most interesting candidate.

The last time John Kasich went to New Hampshire, the visit did not go well. It was 16 years ago, and Kasich, a 47-year-old Republican congressman who had made his name in D.C. as the budget-balancing enfant terrible of the Gingrich revolution, was running for president.

Just when Kasich thought he was really connecting with a voter in Lebanon, the woman looked at her watch and asked him when the candidate was going to arrive. A few months later, Kasich’s candidacy was over, a minor footnote to George W. Bush’s steamroll to the GOP nomination.

Kasich is now the two-term governor of Ohio, and he’s thinking about running for president again. He returned to New Hampshire a few weeks ago and was surprised to find that his reception was very different. A gathering at the Snow Shoe Club in Concord, for example, drew a standing-room-only crowd, and the audience members all seemed to know who he was. “Sixteen years ago, I would have been shoveling the driveway!” he told me afterward.

At 62, and having just been reelected by a 30-point margin, Kasich is both in the prime of his political career and facing what could be a now-or-never moment. He has been contemplating, he told me, “some things that are extremely personal—what is my purpose in life?” He also told me he was trying not to let all the attention he’d received in New Hampshire go to his head, but it sounded like he was having a hard time. “I just feel so liberated,” he said. “All the things I’ve done are finally paying off.”

Last week, Kasich announced the formation of a 527 fundraising committee, which will allow him to travel, raise money, and build a national political infrastructure as he explores a presidential run. Its board includes a top New Hampshire GOP name, former Senator John E. Sununu.

As the 2016 Republican primary has begun to take shape, it has attracted a madding crowd of colorful aspirants, from the White House legacy (Jeb Bush) to the Obama-bashing African American neurosurgeon (Ben Carson). Collectively, the contenders are far better credentialed than those of 2012, when the race for the nomination often seemed to pit the snow-white Mitt Romney against seven or more dwarves. (Remember Rick Santorum? He might be running again, on the rationale that he came in second last time.)

Yet they all seem to have weaknesses that could become fatal flaws, from Bush’s silver-spoon image to Carson’s total lack of political experience and penchant for comparing Obamacare to slavery. There’s Chris Christie’s scandal-tarnished reputation, and Scott Walker’s seeming unreadiness for the national spotlight. The three candidates who’ve now publicly declared—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio—were all elected to the U.S. Senate in the last five years; they lack executive experience, and their records are thin. GOP voters have told pollsters they are wary of a candidate whose résumé resembles Barack Obama’s.

If only, Republican voters might be thinking, there were a candidate who could appeal to blue-collar voters but also mingle with the GOP establishment. A governor who’d proven he could run a large state but who also had national experience. Someone who’d won tough elections and maintained bipartisan popularity in an important swing state. A candidate whose folksy demeanor and humble roots would contrast nicely with Hillary Clinton’s impersonal, stiffly scripted juggernaut.

That’s Kasich’s pitch, in a nutshell.

He’s not well known among the national Republican base or conservative activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nor has he begun to do the sorts of things—hiring big-name national consultants, seeking commitments from donors—that would put him on the radar of the pundits tracking the race. But he has a large and loyal potential fundraising base (he raised nearly $30 million for his reelection campaign despite a weak opponent), a knack for commanding a room in an unorthodox manner, and credentials that demand to be taken seriously.

Kasich has managed a $72 billion state budget and served on the House Armed Services Committee. He won 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties in his reelection, including Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County—unheard-of for a Republican: In 2012, President Obama won Cuyahoga by a two-to-one margin. The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in January that Kasich was the most underrated potential Republican candidate, describing him as “fresh but seasoned and managerial.” If he does get in the race, says John Weaver, a Texas-based GOP consultant who was John McCain’s chief strategist, “he would absolutely be a threat for the nomination.”

Kasich, however, has a couple of weaknesses of his own. He has frequently defied his party’s right wing, including on the hot-button issue of Obamacare. And he has a combustible personality that strikes some as refreshing and genuine but others as erratic. “He’s not an ordinary politician,” says Keith Faber, the president of the Ohio Senate, who accompanied Kasich to New Hampshire. “Before he answers a question, he doesn’t sit and think, ‘Oh, what is the least controversial way to discuss this so no one will misinterpret me?’ He says what he thinks.” If Kasich runs for president, as he now seems almost certain to do, that quality could make him 2016's most interesting entrant.

Kasich campaigning for Congress in 1982 (Courtesy of John Kasich)

The thing about John Kasich is, he’s kind of a jerk.

Lobbyists in Columbus warn their clients before meeting the governor not to take it personally if he berates them. A top Ohio Republican donor once publicly vowed not to give Kasich a penny after finding him to be “unpleasantly arrogant.” As a congressman, Kasich sometimes lashed out at constituents—one who called him a “redneck” in a 1985 letter got a reply recommending he “enroll in a remedial course on protocol”—and when Kasich was thrown out of a Grateful Dead concert for trying to join the band onstage, he allegedly threatened to use his clout to have the band banned from D.C. As I was writing this article, Kasich’s press secretary, Rob Nichols, helpfully emailed me the thesaurus entry for “prickly,” sensing that I would need it.

I spent several days with Kasich in Ohio in February, and during that time he told me, repeatedly, that he did not read The Atlantic—and his wife didn’t, either. He said that my job, writing about politics and politicians, was “really a dumb thing to do.” Later, he singled me out in a meeting of cabinet officials to upbraid me for what he considered a stupid question in one of our interviews. At a Kasich press conference I attended at a charter school in Cleveland, he interrupted several speakers, wandered off to rummage on a nearby teacher’s desk as he was being introduced, and gleefully insulted the Cleveland Browns, to a smattering of boos.

But while Kasich can be rude—and at times even genuinely nasty—he is also prone to spontaneous displays of empathy, frequently becoming emotional as he talks about the plight of people “in the shadows.” To his allies, these traits are two sides of the same coin. They describe Kasich as a sort of heartland Chris Christie—brash, decisive, authentic—without all the baggage. “He does have a tendency to ready-fire-aim,” says Mike Hartley, who helped run Kasich’s 2010 campaign for governor and worked in his administration. “But here’s the thing—he makes things happen. His will is tremendous, and he gets people to follow him. He’s an ass-kicker.” Like Christie, Kasich can be a compelling speaker; he’s a good storyteller, and his brusqueness gives him a similar sort of anti-charisma. A 2010 article in Columbus’s alternative weekly recounted multiple episodes of Kasich’s boorishness, only to conclude that “perhaps Ohio could use a good SOB in the Governor’s Mansion.”

Kasich’s peremptory, irreverent manner, and his way of seeming to be perpetually going in a million directions at once, can strike observers as flightiness. One national Democratic strategist told me he considered Kasich “a bit of a flake,” and a Republican consultant described him to me as “abrasive.” The fixation on his unusual personality galls Kasich; he believes it ignores the substance of his accomplishments. At a “politics and eggs” breakfast in New Hampshire, when an audience member asked what his detractors say about him, Kasich copped to being frequently described as undisciplined. “You get a short time with me and you might go, ‘Wow, what the heck do we have here?’” he said. “Well, I’m an energetic guy, and I’m not going to change it.”

Bob Klaffky, a Columbus-based Republican lobbyist and consultant who has been close to Kasich since the early 1980s, says Kasich’s greatest weakness is also his greatest strength. “He comes across as very genuine, sincere, and candid, but then again, in politics, not being scripted can be a weakness.” Kasich’s loose-cannon image may be more calculated than it appears, however: Despite seeming perpetually off-the-cuff, he rarely makes gaffes serious enough that he has to apologize for them. (The time he publicly referred to a cop who pulled him over as an “idiot” was a notable exception.)

“How do you go from an $8 billion deficit to a $2 billion surplus—while cutting taxes, reforming health care, reforming welfare, reforming education—if you’re not disciplined?” Kasich told me. “People seem to be fixated on my energy level. What people need to understand is, if you don’t have a lot of energy, you can’t get a lot done.” Kasich seemed to be on the verge of a full-blown rant, but he stopped himself. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. Nobody is.”

Kasich traces his pugnaciousness to his blue-collar upbringing. He was “a small, scrappy kid” who “was taught to work twice as hard as the next guy, often to get half as far,” he wrote in his 2006 book Stand for Something, which is about 80 percent corny pabulum and 20 percent interesting memoir. Both his parents hailed from “dirt poor” immigrant families in western Pennsylvania; his paternal grandfather was a coal miner who died of black-lung disease. Kasich and his two siblings were raised in the working-class Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks, where his father, John, was a mail carrier, and his mother, Anne, worked at the post office.

Kasich endorses George W. Bush after leaving the 1999 presidential race. (Reuters)

At age 10, Kasich became a Catholic altar boy, and he discovered a passion for public speaking when the priest asked him to address the congregation. (He once stopped the organist to yell at the parishioners for not singing enthusiastically enough, only to find he’d told them to turn to the wrong page in their hymnals.)  Though his parents were committed union Democrats, by the time he was a teenager Kasich had developed a conservative streak and started calling in to local talk-radio stations. When I asked him where his political beliefs came from, Kasich described a deeply felt sense that big institutions were hostile to the little guy. “Big government, big business—I mean, what do they care?” he told me. “They just grind you down.”

In 1970, Kasich went off to Ohio State University, making the interstate move that would set the course of his career. Within weeks, he took issue with the rules of his dorm. He pestered the college president’s secretary for a meeting until she relented and gave him an appointment with the president, Novice Fawcett. And when Fawcett let on that he was flying to Washington to meet with then-President Richard Nixon, Kasich asked him to deliver a letter in which the freshman offered his counsel to the commander-in-chief. Nixon, perhaps looking for a way to connect with the youth vote, took him up on his offer, and in December 1970 the 18-year-old John Kasich spent 20 minutes talking Nixon’s ear off. Reflecting back on it, he would note that, during his 18 years in Congress, he never matched that amount of time in the Oval Office.

Kasich was 24 when he began campaigning for state senate against an entrenched local Democrat, driving his red Chevette from one corner of the district to another, knocking on doors and living off fast food. By Kasich’s account, his single-minded devotion to campaigning helped kill his first marriage. (His ex-wife, who is remarried and lives in Texas, has said she bears him no ill will; since 1997, he has been married to a public-relations consultant named Karen Waldbillig, and they have twin 15-year-old daughters, Emma and Reese.) But by the end of that first campaign, he had pulled off a major upset.

The young legislator immediately set about irritating his colleagues. He told the Republican governor that he would not support his proposal for property taxes and proceeded to write his own, alternative budget. He refused to take a pay raise the other legislators had approved to augment their $17,500-a-year salaries. Kasich’s district was eliminated in the next round of redistricting, a move he saw as an attempt to strangle his ambitions. So he ran for Congress instead. It was 1982, the year of the Reagan backlash, when Republicans lost 27 seats in the House. Kasich was the only Republican in the country to defeat an incumbent Democrat.

In Washington, the 30-year-old Kasich again began writing his own budgets, and was again at odds with senior members of his own party. In 1989, the Democrats’ budget got 230 votes, then-President George H.W. Bush’s budget got 213 votes, and Kasich’s budget got 30 votes. His temerity got the attention of Newt Gingrich, and when the GOP pulled off its improbable sweep in 1994, Gingrich awarded Kasich the budget committee chairmanship. Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman and Gingrich lieutenant, likened Kasich to a more recent Republican budget chairman whose policy crusades were initially considered radical but gradually entered the party mainstream. “He was the Paul Ryan of his day,” Walker told me.

Kasich, center, tosses a shovel full of sand alongside fellow Ohio lawmakers in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Inner Belt bridge project in Cleveland Monday, May 2, 2011. (Mark Duncan / AP)

A 1995 60 Minutes segment featuring Kasich was titled “The Axman Cometh” and warned about Medicare cuts, with footage of shuffling elderly people in the backdrop. In one scene, the 42-year-old chairman sits in a barbershop in his district, informing a pair of dancers that their funding from the National Endowment for the Arts will disappear when he eliminates the NEA. “It’s going to be gone,” he says implacably, sipping from a styrofoam cup. “But John, no!” one of the women says. “We’ll go under!” Gingrich told me he gives Kasich “a large proportion of the credit” for the budget-balancing agreement that was reached after months of negotiations and a government shutdown. The former speaker considers Kasich one of four conservative visionaries of the 20th century, along with Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and, of course, Gingrich himself.

But Kasich’s conservatism was eclectic. He voted for an assault-weapons ban and teamed up with a liberal California Democrat, Ron Dellums, to try and kill the B-2 bomber, which he viewed as expensive and unnecessary. (The two eventually succeeded in limiting the bomber’s production to just 20 planes of an originally planned 132.) Kasich was integral to the welfare-reform efforts of Gingrich and Clinton, but he also sought to reform corporate welfare, reasoning that government handouts were just as bad for big corporations as they were for the poor. Skeptics, however, noted that the proposed cuts to poverty aid were successful, whereas those to corporate welfare were quickly negotiated away.

A young Kasich meets Richard Nixon. (Courtesy of John Kasich)

Success seemed to follow success in those days, and by 1999, Kasich was running for president. The 47-year-old styled himself a fresh face and bonded with young voters over Pearl Jam. A 1999 account in the San Francisco Chronicle—headlined “Rockin’ Republican Runs for President”—recorded Kasich telling a group of New Hampshire volunteers, “If you don’t want to have fun, go somewhere else. Go work for one of those other fuddy-duddies, because we may have to go get a beer every once in a while.”

His message was about making the Republican Party stand up for the little guy and making people feel cared about—a sort of compassionate conservatism, if you will; when the political-dynast governor of Texas waded into the race with a similar message but a lot more money and connections, Kasich’s hopes withered. After five months, Kasich quit the race, endorsed George W. Bush, and announced he would also resign his seat in Congress. Shortlisted for the vice-presidential nomination and frequently mentioned as a potential cabinet pick, he was passed over for both, possibly due to having tangled with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney over the B-2 in the 1980s.

Kasich said he was leaving Congress because he wanted to try new things. He went on to host a couple of moderately successful Fox News programs—Heroes, featuring profiles of inspirational figures, followed by From the Heartland With John Kasich—and to work for Lehman Brothers, from Columbus, until the company’s 2008 collapse. But friends never doubted he would return to politics, and in 2010 he emerged to take on the incumbent Democratic governor, Ted Strickland. The campaign against Kasich used his time at Lehman to brand him a fat-cat banker. In a great year for Republicans nationally, he won by a narrow margin.

Faber, the senate president, recalls meeting Kasich in 2007, when he was beginning to contemplate a return to public office. The two men fell into conversation, and Kasich sketched out what he thought it would take to turn the state around. “I told him then, ‘If you do all the things you’re talking about, the first two years they’ll burn you in effigy,’” Faber told me. “‘And the second two years, they’ll run you for Pope.’ And that’s pretty much what has happened.”

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor swears in Kasich for his second term on January 12, 2015. His wife, Karen, holds the Bible as his daughters Reese, left, and Emma look on. (Jay LaPrete / AP)

Kasich now runs the great state of Ohio—America’s seventh most populous, with 11.6 million residents, home state of eight American presidents and six major professional sports teams, stretching from Appalachia to the upper Midwest—from a nondescript blue armchair in one corner of his office.

More than four years into his tenure, his dowdy warren of offices, on the 30th floor of a tower across from the capitol, looks as if he has not yet moved in. Pinned to a wall as you enter are a photocopy of an article in New York Bowler magazine headlined “Meeting the Governor of Ohio was a ‘Wow’ Moment” and a quotation from Machiavelli: “The innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” Along one wall is a large, empty wooden desk that Kasich does not use. Instead, he sits in his chair with a phone at his feet and a white board at his elbow. From here, the governor issues orders, works through problems, gets up and paces, picks up the phone to summon people into the room. He does not have a smartphone, and he rarely emails. There’s no computer in the room, nor are there piles of papers lying around; the information Kasich needs is apparently all in his head.

During my visit, a dozen state officials gathered in Kasich’s office to strategize over the budget, which had been presented to the legislature and was beginning to be picked apart. Education funding was a particular point of contention. A formula that had been in place for decades prevented shrinking schools from losing funding and capped the amount of money growing schools could gain; Kasich wanted to simplify it and make it fairer. Many wealthy rural and suburban districts—his political base—would lose funding under Kasich’s plan; if they wanted more money, Kasich said, they could impose local levies. His budget would also increase oversight of charter schools; expand early-childhood-education; and increase overall school funding by $700 million. Though Kasich billed his proposals as necessary reform, they were attracting bipartisan opposition: Republicans and Democrats alike wanted to protect schools in their districts from being cut.

In the blue chair, Kasich looked at two copies of the Columbus Dispatch. The previous day’s bore the front-page headline “ALL OVER THE MAP” above an article about the proposed school-funding changes. A subheadline charged that the wealthiest districts would benefit the most. By today’s Dispatch, however, the tenor had mellowed—the headline instead read “COMPLEX FORMULA,” and a chart tucked into an inside page showed that the biggest funding increases would actually go to urban districts. Still, the article was full of quotes from school superintendents complaining about the changes.

Kasich (second from right) stands alongside Al Gore and Newt Gingrich as the president signs budget-balancing legislation in 1997. (Reuters)

Kasich wondered why those school bosses who would get more money weren’t speaking up in favor of the plan. He picked up the phone by his feet and asked his secretary, “Is Dick Ross here? Have him stick his head in.” While he waited for Ross, the state schools superintendent, to enter, the governor enacted a brief, mocking impression of the man, affecting a throaty voice and anxious demeanor. When Ross entered, Kasich asked him, “I mean, are any of these people speaking up? If they don’t, they’re going to lose that money—do they know that?”

Ross said there was an issue of “group pressure to protect the status quo.”

“They’re afraid? Of what?” Kasich said. “Somebody’s going to kick them out of the superintendents’ lodge?”

“Well, yeah,” Ross responded.

Tim Keen, the budget director, interjected, “Their preferred solution is everybody gets more.”

“We want to get more on offense,” Kasich said. To Ross, he ordered, “Call this guy who’s in the paper calling it dumb. He needs to get a phone call.” Then his attention moved to the legislators who had begun to criticize the plan. “My question is, how are they going to fix this?” he asked.

For all the us-against-the-world righteousness of Kasich and his staff, I was struck by the fact that they seemed to be scrambling to round up support after the fact for a proposal they had known from the start would be hugely controversial. Kasich could have approached potential allies before unveiling his proposal and gotten them to help sell it; instead, he was under fire from all sides.

This has been Kasich’s style as governor—combative, reformist, not much of a team player. “If you’re not on the bus, we’ll run over you with the bus,” he told a group of lobbyists shortly after winning election in 2010. In Kasich’s first year in office, he set off an uproar by signing a measure known as Senate Bill 5 to end collective bargaining for public employees, including police and firefighters. The backlash was fierce; Kasich’s approval rating dove below 30 percent, and Ohio voters repealed the measure by a large margin—62 percent—in a ballot referendum. Kasich appeared to have badly overstepped, and he began to be mentioned in the same breath as Scott Walker, who had also drawn protests after curtailing collective bargaining in Wisconsin. When Walker survived a union-backed recall, Kasich looked like his less successful analogue.

After the episode, however, Kasich rather uncharacteristically backed down, saying the voters had spoken and the issue was closed. A narrative emerged that, having had his hard-right foray repudiated, Kasich had tacked to the middle. “Much of what he does I think is reprehensible, but he’s a smart person,” Strickland, the Democratic governor Kasich defeated in 2010 (and now a candidate for the U.S. Senate), told me. “After SB5 got smacked down, he was smart enough to say, ‘Wait a minute, this tough-guy stuff isn’t working for me.’”

Kasich contends that many of his other first-year initiatives were successful, including passing the nation’s largest tax cut, repealing the estate tax, and reducing the number of state employees. He replaced the state’s moribund Office of Development with a private nonprofit called JobsOhio and threw himself into personally recruiting companies to the state. In his first two years in office, the state’s unemployment rate fell from 9 percent, one of the nation’s highest, to 7 percent, below the national average, and it has continued to decline. In December, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 5.1 percent, half a point below the overall U.S. rate of 5.6 percent. Last month, Kasich held a press conference to celebrate the creation of 352,000 jobs on his watch, surpassing the 351,000 lost during his predecessor’s administration.

Kasich delivers his State of the State address at Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center in Lima, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. (Rick Osentoski / AP)

JobsOhio has been dogged by allegations of cronyism and a lack of transparency, and critics argue that most of the new jobs have been low-paying. They also say Kasich has taken credit for economic improvements that began under his predecessor and owed more to the national economy improving than to any state action. Campaigning in Ohio in 2012, Obama frequently pointed to the federal bailout of the auto industry, which is linked to one in eight Ohio jobs.

Kasich’s budgets have steadily eroded local government funding, leaving cities and towns to raise levies or slash services. “He has played a lot of budgetary shell games that reflect someone looking out for the superrich while making life harder for working Ohioans,” says P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democratic city councilman in Cincinnati who is running for the same U.S. Senate seat Strickland is seeking. “Our fire department in Cincinnati is understaffed today because of John Kasich’s actions.”

Nevertheless, there is a pervasive optimism in Kasich’s state. A recent poll put Kasich’s approval rating at 61 percent, and in another poll, 72 percent of Ohioans said the state was on the right track. Few other Republican governors can claim such success for their experiments in austerity and trickle-down economics. Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana faces an enormous budget hole; Chris Christie’s New Jersey has seen its credit rating downgraded nine times; Scott Walker’s Wisconsin faces a large deficit and lagging job growth, and his approval rating recently fell to 41 percent. In Kansas, the tax- and budget-slashing pursued by Governor Sam Brownback prompted a backlash that nearly cost Republicans the governorship of one of the reddest states in the country. But in Ohio, Kasich has been able to cut taxes while also increasing state spending—the growing economy has brought increased revenue, while he's also shifted costs to the local level and accepted federal Medicaid funds. In this year’s budget, he proposes cutting income taxes while raising sales and business taxes, and levying a new tax on fracking.

Kasich steps out of his SUV and into a waiting jacket as he heads into a talk in Cleveland in 2011. (Amy Sancetta / AP)

During his congressional days, Kasich was seen as a radical conservative, albeit an idiosyncratic one. Today—whether because the GOP has shifted right or because he has mellowed—he is seen much more as a moderate. He has embraced the Common Core educational standards that are anathema to many on the right. He has indicated an openness to legalizing undocumented immigrants and has enacted reforms to criminal justice. His budgets have expanded services to the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. And his allies in the legislature have helped keep the most controversial social policies—like banning abortion after eight weeks, or a “stand your ground” self-defense law—from crossing his desk.

“He has a lot of compassion, and a lot of courage with regard to his compassion,” the Democratic mayor of Cleveland, Frank Jackson, told me. Jackson worked closely with Kasich on education—even getting Kasich’s support for a local tax hike—though he opposes Kasich’s fiscal policies and supported Kasich’s opponent in 2014. “We disagree on some fundamental things, but we like each other,” Jackson said. Almost every Ohio Democrat I spoke to would say, however grudgingly, that Kasich had done some positive things.

Most significantly, Kasich in 2013 became one of the first—and most outspoken—Republican governors to accept Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, which the Supreme Court had allowed states to opt out of. “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small,” he said at one point. “But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.” (Kasich became more committed to, and vocal about, his faith after both his parents were killed by a drunk driver, in 1987.) Thirteen Republican governors have accepted the federal Medicaid-expansion funds or are in the process of doing so, while 16 states, all GOP-led, have rejected them.

Kasich holds up President Bill Clinton’s slender budget proposal and Republicans’ hefty budget plan during a 1995 news conference. (Reuters)

Majorities of voters support expanding Medicaid, but many conservatives revile it as a costly expansion of government—and they aren’t fond of being lectured by Kasich about their supposed heartlessness. “He likes quoting the Bible—‘Thou shalt expand Medicaid,’ I keep looking for that verse,” John Becker, a conservative member of the Ohio House of Representative, told me. At a closed-door donor forum in Palm Springs hosted by the Koch brothers, Kasich was attacked by two fellow Republican governors, Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, for, in the words of a source who attended the event, “hiding behind Jesus to expand Medicaid." The source added, “It got heated.” (A spokeswoman for Jindal confirmed the governors' disagreement at the event but denied their exchange was heated.)

Kasich’s reputation as something of a bleeding heart could make it difficult to get through the GOP primary. Just after his recent New Hampshire foray, he met in New York with an influential group of fiscal conservatives including the former CNBC host Larry Kudlow, Reaganite economist Arthur Laffer, and the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore. National Review’s report on the meeting, which included a testy back-and-forth on Medicaid, was headlined, “Kasich Turns Off Supply Siders in New York City.”

Yet Kasich’s willingness to take on his own party and chart a bipartisan course could be a powerful selling point in a national election. “The Republican brand is very, very degraded, because the Republican party has defined itself in opposition to the president, but it’s not clear what their positive vision is,” David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s campaigns, told me. In 2012, exit polls showed that Mitt Romney won a majority of the voters who wanted a strong leader or someone who shared their values. But among those who wanted a president who “cares about people like me,” a staggering 81 percent chose Obama. Kasich might be the Republican candidate best positioned to bridge this divide, but only if the base will give him a pass for his many deviations from far-right dogma.

Kasich speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit in Nashua, New Hampshire, on April 18, 2015. (Jim Cole / AP)

On my first afternoon in Columbus, I stood around waiting to interview Kasich at the Capitol building, a dark granite monstrosity with walls painted a frumpy shade of salmon. Kasich was nearly two hours late for our appointment, but when he spotted a group of schoolchildren visiting the Capitol for an educational expo, he decided to crash the unsuspecting youngsters’ visit with an impromptu gubernatorial address. Wearing a bright-blue zip-up sweatshirt, pleated black slacks, and black sneakers, Kasich stood in an atrium off the rotunda and spoke to the assembled gaggle.

“Here’s the thing,” Kasich said, his voice taking on the pleading tone it frequently acquires when he’s making an argument. “You have to have big dreams, okay? Life is made up of dreams, okay?” I recalled something Kasich had told me—that when he was growing up in McKees Rocks, there was a barber who used to shout at him across the street, “Johnny Kasich, you’re going to be somebody!” He had never forgotten it.

“I’ll tell you one other thing I want you to know,” Kasich continued. “Everybody doesn’t have to agree with this, and everybody doesn’t have to follow this. But you were made special, I believe, by God in heaven who made you for something special that no one else but you can do. So if you ever feel down, or if somebody’s picking on you—”

Suddenly, a recording of unknown origin began to play through loudspeakers, drowning out Kasich at earsplitting volume. None of what he was saying could be heard after that, but I could see his lips still moving as he tried in vain to finish the thought. John Kasich was going to finish what he had started.