PETERBOROUGH, N.H.—Listen to Ohio Gov. John Kasich's stump speech in New Hampshire, and you'd think he's the luckiest guy in politics. As Kasich tells it, he finagled his way into a White House meeting with President Nixon as an 18-year-old freshman at Ohio State University after writing the president a praiseworthy letter. The event, in his telling, kicked off an illustrious, accidental career in politics. Still in his 20s, he mounted a long-shot bid for the state Senate and became the youngest state senator in Ohio history; and in 1982, he was the only Republican to unseat a House Democrat, despite running in an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district.
"In my lifetime, I've had a lot of blessings from the Lord. Lightning has struck me my entire lifetime," Kasich said Tuesday, at his first of two town halls this week in the state. He then went up to several young adults in the crowd, and told them they can achieve the same dreams as he did. "Never sell yourself short! If you have dreams, live them."
Kasich's strategy for winning the GOP nomination for president is unconventional, but it's part of his growing appeal in the Granite State. His town halls are heavy on his personal biography, partly a recap of his record as governor of Ohio, with a mix of folksy answers to audience questions and a smattering of Oprah-like self-help mixed in. They're an acquired taste: Many attendees praised his authenticity and his candid approach to campaigning, while others questioned his focus and preparation. He speaks with an intensity and rapidity that often leaves audiences waiting to figure out when to applaud.
In an interview with National Journal, Kasich pledged another atypical tactic: He's not going to attack any of his opponents—Hillary Clinton included—and will instead focus on offering solutions to the nation's pressing problems. He lived up to that commitment in his town hall meetings this week, not mentioning Clinton's name at all and avoiding referencing any of his GOP opponents.
"If I'm talking about someone else, I'm not talking about me. And I would rather them know what my record is and my passion is. So if I'm spending my time attacking other people, that doesn't get me anywhere. Frankly, it's not what people want. They want to know: Do you have a record, do you have solutions, can you lead?" Kasich said. "It's a lot more important for me to cement that down than getting people hooting and hollering."
There are signs that the strategy is working. Kasich is the GOP candidate with the most momentum in New Hampshire, transforming a long-shot campaign into one with a legitimate chance at winning the state's primary. He's traveled to New Hampshire 12 times since early March, ranking him near the top of candidate visits during that time. Kasich's New Day for America super PAC has been airing nearly $4 million in ads introducing the governor to unfamiliar voters. On Wednesday, he landed the backing of former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, one of the most important (and sought-after) GOP operatives in the state. And Kasich's widely-praised debate performance last Thursday vaulted him into third place in the state with 12 percent of the vote, according to a new Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald survey.
Kasich's rise is all the more surprising given that he's not running away from his record of spending nearly all of his life in government. At a time when Republican anger at career politicians is near an all-time high, Kasich cajoles the audience with tales of his time writing budgets as a committee chair in Congress and working with legislators in Ohio on a bipartisan basis. While many consultants urge their clients to focus on a vision for the future, Kasich is at his most charming when recalling the past. Indeed, one of his most impressive accomplishments during his campaign so far is translating a glaring political weakness—a career in government—into a political asset, selling himself as the most experienced, successful candidate in the field.
"[Voters] usually look at people from Washington and think, 'That's another blowhard,' " Kasich told National Journal. "But when I was [in Congress], we had a team of people that solved problems—reformed welfare, balanced budgets, cut taxes. This was a remarkable period."
Kasich's advisers see a little of Donald Trump's personality in the governor—his senior strategist John Weaver called him a more optimistic, experienced version of Trump—and attribute much of his rise in New Hampshire to his bluntness and authenticity. Like Trump, his speeches are often unscripted and frequently end up veering into tangents unrelated to their original point. He's got a reputation for lashing out at critics, dating back to his tenure in Congress. Like Trump, he thinks he's underestimated by the media and relishes pointing out flawed conventional wisdom. ("First people didn't think I was going to get in," Kasich said. "Then they said we'll never raise any money. Then they said, 'He's getting in too late.' Now they're saying, 'What a brilliant strategy that he got in late.' ... I've always been underestimated.") Both Trump and Kasich talk tough against China. Both have even talked about how good-looking their wives are at campaign appearances.
"Voters are smart, and they know what's real and what's not. And that's why people are drawn to him in these town hall meetings—he speaks in everyday language," said Weaver. "He taps into the same voter anger that Donald Trump was able to get in front of. However, he has a track record and an optimism that government can be tamed and shrunk, and that America's best days are in front of us. He's the positive version of Trump."
It's hard to imagine, however, that Kasich's stylistic appeal to disaffected voters will win over the most conservative elements of the party. The governor's biggest challenge in the Republican nomination fight will be convincing skeptics that he's not a moderate squish. In his stump speeches, he doesn't make much effort to do so—even though his record of advocating for balanced budgets and tax cuts, and his support for more aggressive military action in the Middle East, demonstrate that his views are well within the conservative tradition.
Not only did Kasich avoid talking about Hillary Clinton during the two town halls I attended, he barely mentioned President Obama, either. He regularly reiterates his support for Medicaid expansion in Ohio. He praised Massachusetts's educational standards as the best in the country while responding to a question about Common Core. On issues ranging from education to transportation to welfare, he bashed the federal government's ineffectiveness in handling those matters—but championed active statewide government programs in their place. ("I'd like to keep dad in the welfare home, but we chase him out because he makes too much money," Kasich told a New Hampshire voter at a town hall, immediately after he won applause for saying welfare should be the responsibility of the states.)
Indeed, the Kasich strategy is predicated on winning support in states with more-moderate Republican electorates. The campaign hopes to maintain its momentum in New Hampshire, aiming to dethrone Jeb Bush as the establishment favorite in the primary. If they succeed, they plan on performing credibly in South Carolina and focusing on winning delegate-rich Midwestern and Northeastern states where the GOP electorates are less conservative. Michigan is a particularly intriguing focus for the campaign, given its Rust Belt demographic similarities to Ohio. Kasich's top consultants, Weaver and adman Fred Davis, both worked for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's campaigns.
"This organization is growing faster than John McCain's did in 1999," said Weaver, the political architect behind McCain's two presidential campaigns. "It's organic growth. People who are very conservative and unaffiliated voters are both expressing interest. That gives me great hope for how this is transitioning into a significant force."