In Iowa, Kasich's Message Might Not Hit Home
DES MOINES — John Kasich has been telling Iowans the same stories over the course of nearly two decades.
Now, however, he hopes to rewrite the ending.
The Ohio governor, who was chairman of the House Budget Committee during the 1990s, ended his turn Tuesday on the Iowa State Fair “soapbox” with an anecdote about being invited at age 18 to meet President Nixon in the Oval Office.
“The good news is, I spend 20 minutes alone with the president of the United States as an 18-year-old first-quarter freshman in college,” Kasich said. “The bad news is, I spend 18 years in Congress, and you add up all the time I’ve spent in the Oval Office, I peaked out at the age of 18.”
Pauline Johnson, who was in the crowd for Kasich’s remarks, remembered the story well. Kasich had recited it during a stop in Iowa in 1998, as he tested the waters for a first, ill-fated presidential bid.
Johnson liked Kasich then. And she still likes him now, as he gives a run for the White House another go.
“He’s impressive,” she said. “You kind of feel like you know him as soon as he talks, don’t you think?”
Indeed, it was Kasich’s approachable and easy demeanor that shone through during the first Republican debate, for which the two-term governor’s polling had barely qualified him. Since then, he has jumped to third place in New Hampshire, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, close behind Jeb Bush.
"I do want to thank Donald Trump, because he got 24 million people to watch the debate,” Kasich said Tuesday.
But the Hawkeye State is not friendly turf for Kasich. In New Hampshire, which tends to favor independent-minded Republicans, he has found a receptive audience for his more moderate stances on expanding Medicaid in Ohio, for example, or on hot-button issues like immigration reform.
Meanwhile, in recent elections Iowa has favored more staunchly conservative candidates or self-styled political outsiders. (The RCP average shows Kasich far off the lead there, in ninth place.)
Kasich seemed unbothered by this dynamic Tuesday at the state fair, where he launched, unsolicited, into an explanation of his Medicaid expansion decision, highlighted his record of working with Democrats, and stressed the role of government in helping people.
“This notion that government can’t work?” Kasich said at one point. “Baloney. Just treat it like a business. Fix it.”
If that message is unconventional in Iowa, however, it might just be that Kasich feels he doesn’t have much to gain -- or lose -- there. The super PAC supporting him has so far spent roughly $4 million on advertising targeting New Hampshire voters, and Kasich has spent most of his time campaigning there. Strategists widely agree that it’s the early voting state where he has the best shot to win.
And some of Kasich’s Iowa supporters conceded that the state’s conservatives might not warm to him.
“If you’re a true conservative and it has to be done A, B, C, he’s not going to be your man,” said Rod Cook, who attended Kasich’s soapbox speech. “But then you don’t get anything done, either.”
Polling in the state suggests, at least for now, that Iowa Republicans are drawn to those types of conservative candidates, or to political outsiders who have not held elected office. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina currently round out the top four.
Trump, in particular, has distinguished himself with his fiery, uncompromising, sometimes offensive rhetoric.
But what Kasich delivered Tuesday was something much different: an uplifting message that sounded closer to a sermon than a political stump speech.
"I believe that all of us have to be a center of justice and a center of healing, and to realize that life is not just about us alone,” Kasich said. “Life is about us doing something bigger in our lives for someone else."
That side of Kasich, empathetic and faithful, is a story he had not shared with Iowans before. But it’s unclear who is listening. As Kasich walked the fairgrounds after his remarks, only a few people came up to say hello, whereas other candidates had been mobbed.
Kasich didn’t seem to mind. He gamely commandeered a large tractor for brief photo op, and then dove into a large double-scoop chocolate ice cream cone — playing the Iowa game as much as he dared.