Can Kasich Be More Than Just Candidate No. 16?

Can Kasich Be More Than Just Candidate No. 16?
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And then there were 16.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich became the 16th candidate to launch a 2016 presidential campaign on Tuesday. But with an unscripted, meandering speech at his alma mater, Ohio State University, Kasich set out to show he is not just another number. 

And on paper and in tone, he isn’t. For starters, he’s a two-term governor of a must-win swing state elected with broad constituencies, who chaired top House committees and had his own Fox News show. But he’s also one of the few Republican governors who expanded Medicaid in his state—which has earned him the ire of many in his party—and has made social welfare a key issue in his campaign for the presidency.

“It’s our job and our mission as human beings, as children of God” to lift people from the shadows, he said during his 45-minute announcement speech. Creating jobs “is our highest moral purpose.” Empathy, he said, is critical to governing. “I would ask you to think, put yourself in the shoes of another person. We’re so quick to make judgment. Don’t walk so fast.”

Indeed, the 63-year governor isn’t quite like the others. The wide-ranging, disorganized speech void of specific policy ideas aside from a balanced budget amendment could be seen as a missed opportunity to make a much-needed impact. Kasich is polling at the bottom of the pack and needs to rise in order to make the prime-time debate stage in his home state in two weeks. Questions remain about his discipline, whether he is able to raise enough money to compete and whether he can break through in a crowded field.

On the other hand, the speech showed a welcome dose of authenticity, something that could help set him apart. Kasich embraced his status as an underdog in the large field and pitched himself as a compassionate policy guy who wants to tackle both the debt and drug abuse.

“I have to humbly tell you, I have the skills,” he said. “And I have the experience. And I have the testing--the testing which shapes you and prepares you for the most important job in the world. And I believe I know how to work and how to restore this great United States.” 

But while Kasich tried to stand apart from the others, he borrowed from them, too. He ventured into Jeb Bush territory by talking about giving people “the right to rise.” It was not clear if this mention was intentional, as the governor seemed to catch himself after the words left his mouth. But it was notable, especially since he has criticized his rival’s theme back in May. Bush will be Kasich’s top competitor for the more moderate, establishment-oriented lane in which they are both trying to operate in the primary. Kasich also talked about the need to have “big and bold” ideas, a reference to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. And Kasich’s unscripted style and “tell it like is” is reminiscent of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. 

Kasich also frequently referenced Ronald Reagan, a dominant figure in Republican primary campaigns. “The light of a city on a hill cannot be hidden,” he said in closing. “America is that city and you are that light.”

Like several Republicans running this cycle, Kasich’s future will largely depend on his showing in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. The state’s more moderate leanings (compared to Iowa) and its accessibility make it a welcome place for underdogs. Kasich’s experience balancing the budget under the Clinton administration while he was House Budget chairman, his experience as chair of the Armed Services committee, and his “Ohio Story” of turning a deficit into a surplus as governor are highlights of his resume that figure to play well there. Kasich heads to the Granite State directly after his announcement in Columbus, and will host a series of town halls on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But Kasich is one of the last serious contenders to enter the race and faces high odds in breaking away from the field. Adding to the difficulty is the continued presence of Donald Trump, who has taken much of the oxygen out the room over the past several weeks. The New York businessman’s controversial statements and traction in the polls has eclipsed many big moments for other campaigns, including rollouts, policy speeches, and early-state visits.

Kasich’s launch is the most recent example of Trump’s overshadowing. As the Ohio governor made his pitch, Trump garnered a large crowd in South Carolina, where he made news by insulting Sen. Lindsey Graham and other contenders. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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