The debate also comes as Ohio has to comply with the EPA's recently announced rules reducing carbon emissions from the power sector. While most Republicans have come out viciously against the rules, which they say are a job-killing over-reach, Kasich hasn't been nearly as strong.
Speaking to reporters in New Hampshire the day after the plan was announced, Kasich criticized the rule, saying: "I don't think it's a climate change plan. I think it's an unemployment plan." Ohio's attorney general also joined with 14 other states last week in asking a federal court to put a stay on the rules, arguing that states are facing economic harm by having to prepare for the standards, which do not have to be implemented until 2022.
Beyond 200 pages of comments the state filed on the proposed rule, Kasich hasn't said much on the rule. He's also given no indication that he'll opt out of the rule, as other Republicans have done.
Ohio is required to slash its power sector emissions by 36 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 under the EPA rules, a target that can come through a variety of measures, including switching to natural gas, boosting the use of renewable energy, and retiring coal plants. And that's where Ohio's RPS could come back into play.
"Doing away with those clean-energy standards will be disruptive to meeting the federal rules," said Woodrum. "I think those dots are currently being connected among decision makers."
Daniel J. Weiss, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, said that if Kasich brought back his early support for clean energy, he could separate himself from the crowded Republican field.
"It could set him apart from the vast majority of candidates who are in the 'drill-baby-drill caucus,'" Weiss said. "In a multicandidate field where the most conservative voters are unlikely to support someone like Kasich, there's an opportunity to attract those who are not the most conservative. Whether he or another candidate wants to seize that opportunity is another question."
Nichols pushed back on the notion that Kasich didn't have a clear-energy policy, saying: "We believe in coal, we believe in nuclear, we believe in an 'all of the above strategy,' and that includes renewables. Everybody knows that." But Nichols said there aren't plans for Kasich to release any sort of larger energy platform or to address his state's RPS freeze on the trail. Discussion of the latter, he said, would be driven by the committee report and "if need be, we'll talk about it."
The question then is how firm Kasich decides to be when the need arises.
"I think Gov. Kasich believes we should have a balanced energy policy that includes renewable energy and energy efficiency because it's the right thing to do," said Kelter of ELPC. "Where he comes down on defining 'balanced' is still unknown. He's never publicly said it."