Ohio's Kasich: From Zero to GOP Debate Stage?

Ohio's Kasich: From Zero to GOP Debate Stage?
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Soon after Ohio Gov. John Kasich wrapped up his presidential announcement speech in Columbus last month, Donald Trump was already upstaging him by giving out Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number in South Carolina.

But if that positioning underscored how difficult it would be to gain traction in a crowded field—one led by the attention-getting Trump—the low-polling, relatively unknown Kasich didn’t get the message.

Instead, Kasich ignored Trump and his own long odds, and kept his nose to the grindstone in New Hampshire. Kasich has visited the Granite State nine times since announcing his candidacy on July 21, embracing the state’s quintessential town hall campaign format. His late start, once thought to be a shortcoming, has turned out to be an advantage, keeping him freshest in the public’s eye. All of this, combined most significantly with $3 million worth of ads in the state from his super PAC, have helped the governor move from the bottom to third and fourth place in the state, according to two recent surveys. 

Perhaps most striking, however, is that Kasich is now likely to make the prime-time debate stage in Cleveland on Thursday, defying some expectations that the sitting governor of Ohio would be cut from the main event held in his home state. Debate host Fox News will reveal the prime-time roster, determined by an average of the most recent national polls, after 5 p.m. on Tuesday. According to the RCP national average, Kasich is sitting in ninth place. If he makes the cut, it will mark one of the fastest rises so far this cycle. 

“With the possible exception of Gov. [Jeb] Bush, John Kasich has created the most traction in shortest period of time. And that’s impressive,” says Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire who is remaining neutral in the primary because of his committee duties. “It’s pretty impressive when he can say, ‘I’m the last guy to balance the [federal] budget, and I did it with Bill Clinton as president’… And he can say he’s got the best record of any governor, and arguably, he does.” 

Kasich’s campaign believes that in a field full of governors, many of them competing in New Hampshire, his congressional and gubernatorial experience, including turning Ohio’s multi-billion-dollar deficit into a surplus, is unmatched.

Kasich announced his campaign three weeks ago and may be seeing a bump from that in polling. But the campaign believes his record and electability can help him sustain the momentum it's starting to see. 

“Right now, voters are asking policy questions, but for Republicans who want to win, and want to put a conservative in the White House who knows how to govern, having someone who can win Ohio is pretty damn attractive,” says John Weaver, a former McCain adviser who is serving as Kasich’s top political strategist. “Florida is always going to be a swing state, but with Ohio we can make Democrats play defense in the Midwest.” 

The governor’s unscripted style and “talk from the heart” is resonating in the first primary state, and the focus on and headway in New Hampshire, a welcome space for underdogs, will start to show in national polls, the campaign believes. 

Several candidates this cycle are campaigning as governors who can get things done, speaking to voters who are frustrated or disillusioned by government and the political system. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, is also driving in the straight-talk-express lane and working hard in New Hampshire. But Kasich, lesser known, may not quite carry the same baggage.

A Monmouth poll of New Hampshire found Kasich tied with Scott Walker for third place at 7 percent. Forty-five percent reported a positive view of the Ohio governor while just 15 percent reported a negative one. Forty percent of voters said they did not yet have an opinion of him. Christie garnered 4 percent in the poll, and 42 percent said they have a favorable view of him while 40 percent didn’t. Just 19 percent didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion. 

A Fox News poll released Monday night found Kasich and Christie rounding out the top 10 candidates nationally, tied with 3 percent of the support. It’s not clear which polls the network will use to determine the prime-time roster, other than a combination of five of the most recent national surveys. All of the candidates except Trump participated in a candidate forum in New Hampshire Monday night, sponsored by the Union Leader and broadcast on C-SPAN. 

Kasich supporters believe what will help the governor break past Christie and others in the field is the authenticity factor. While some may view Kasich’s unscripted speeches and events, including his presidential campaign launch, as meandering and disorganized, the campaign sees its messenger as an asset. “He will be a great president instead of just a great, polished candidate,” says Fred Davis, a former McCain adviser and ad man now working for Kasich’s super PAC.

Davis said he met Kasich less than four months ago and was immediately “blown away” by him and his ability to connect with people. The chemistry, he says, is natural and organic. And that is what he has focused on in the ads he made on behalf of the governor. Davis says he sat down with Kasich for two hours and simply asked him questions about a variety of subjects as the camera rolled, and he used those clips in the ads. One is introductory, telling voters he is one of them, and the other is a contrast ad, pitting Kasich against President Obama and Hillary Clinton on foreign policy.

The ads have helped propel Kasich in New Hampshire, and perhaps onto the main debate stage. But while the campaign is happy to have defied expectations, it is trying to downplay them when it comes to the debate.

“The debate matters in the sense that it gives encouragement to your army,” Weaver says. “But when we look back on this process, the first debate won’t be most important thing since the Ben-Hur chariot race. It will be a speed bump on the road to nomination.”

Kasich, who has refrained from engaging Trump, as Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham have, isn’t likely to take on the New York mogul if he gets to share the stage with him. 

“The Donald has added to this circus atmosphere,” says Davis. “And I’m expecting everybody except John Kasich to have some well-crafted or witty attack on Trump that will get applause.”

Weaver says the campaign would be happy to make the main debate on Thursday night, but if not, “We’re doing well in New Hampshire, where they actually pick the candidates.”

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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