Tuftonboro, N.H. — “Did you know why the skeleton couldn’t go to the party?” John Kasich cracked Tuesday night at a town hall in Littleton.
“Because it had no body to go with him.”
Kasich has worked hard to portray himself as the adult in the room: a popular governor of a swing state, a former congressman who helped push through the last balanced budget, a candidate willing to own the fact that he might be more palatable in a general election than in a primary, and unwilling to engage in the histrionic squabbles that have so far defined the Republican field. He went so far as to say he would not be leveling attacks at his opponents, Democrat or Republican, and has shied away from the media’s attempts to draw him into controversies.
“I mean, you know, somebody messes around and starts attacking me, then I might have to say something,” he tells reporters Wednesday as he leaves the American Museum of Police Motorcycles in Meredith.
Kasich appears to be hoping for exactly that. His path to the nomination is looking narrower these days. When he first entered the race, many thought he stood a good chance of benefiting if Jeb Bush stumbled. Months later, Bush has stumbled, but it’s Marco Rubio who has taken his place as the “establishment” front-runner. That leaves Kasich where he has been all along: Betting everything on New Hampshire, a state for which his message of compromise and electability seems tailor made.
‘National polls don’t mean all that much. The only time they matter is when you try to get people to give you money and they go, “Can you win?”’
The governor needs to arrest the narrative that his campaign is in decline, as his poll numbers have begun to dip, both in New Hampshire and nationally, after a strong summer. Polls at this point are hardly predictive, as Kasich is quick to point out, but the narrative they paint, once it takes hold, can often be hard to shake.
“National polls don’t mean all that much,” he says at a town hall in Bow, N.H. “The only time they matter is when you try to get people to give you money and they go, ‘Can you win?’”
As Scott Walker can attest, when donors decide the answer is ‘No,’ there’s no coming back.
Polls are not the only way to influence donors, of course; debates matter, too. Kasich’s campaign knows he needs to have a solid performance later this month in Boulder, and to that end, they are already starting to work the referees.
In a speech in Nashua on Thursday, Kasich will lay out an agenda for his first 100 days as president, covering a wide array of topics: “energy, trade, regulatory, fiscal, tax, federalism,” he rattles off at the motorcycle museum.
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Kasich is clearly excited about the plan. On several occasions this week he shuts down reporters hoping for more details about the plan. But every time he brings it up at a campaign event, he gives a little bit more detail as he enthusiastically implores members of the crowd to attend the rollout speech. He just can’t seem to help himself.
But it’s also a plan designed to maximize crucial face-time on a crowded debate stage. The goal is to help steer the debate conversation toward topics on which Kasich has strong positions, and on which other candidates might disagree with him. With the speech, Kasich will “put some markers out there,” says Tom Rath, the campaign’s New Hampshire co-chair and senior national advisor. That means other candidates will have very specific things to attack him on, and very specific disagreements that the debate moderators can bring up.
“Debates have been really more theater than anything else. . . . If you had not engaged, and he has not, it’s hard to breakthrough,” Rath says.
Over the past several days in New Hampshire, Kasich gave indications he might be willing to buy into the theater moving forward — at least a little.
Earlier in the summer, Kasich said he would not engage in the back-and-forth attacks that occupy many of his rivals for the nomination. “If I’m talking about someone else, I’m not talking about me,” he told National Journal.
But this week he went after Donald Trump directly, if not by name, and called out Hillary Clinton.
And on Wednesday, Kasich went after Clinton for a comment she made in the Democratic debate Tuesday evening.
“She bragged that she made enemies out of Republicans? Is that where this country’s going? . . . That’s a disgrace,” he said, spelling out the word “disgrace” to punctuate his outrage. He reiterated the comment at a house party Wednesday evening, saying Clinton’s partisanship concerned him more than the controversy surrounding her e-mail server at the State Department.
Kasich denies that anything has changed in his tone or strategy.
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“I just think that we have to make sure that we have some stuffins in the promises,” Kasich says Wednesday. “I mean, we’ve got one person [Bush] saying they’re gonna have four percent growth, I don’t know where they pulled that from. We’ve got another person [Trump] saying we’re gonna have like no taxes, and give us like an $11 billion hole. I mean these are things that have to be — you just don’t go make promises. All the numbers have to add up. . . . We’ve gotta figure out how to run the country, and as we get closer and closer to how we’re gonna make a decision, people ought to have answers. That’s not a snide remark or a hit on anybody.”
It’s telling that even when Kasich is asked about attacks on his rivals, he plays coy and asserts that it’s NR’s “assumption” that he was referring to Trump. But the governor is approaching the time when someone is going to start breaking out of the pack, and he needs to make himself heard. The knowledge that he’s not alone — with the exceptions of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, most of the viable candidates in New Hampshire are clumped together in one big pack in the polls — is not particularly comforting.
‘He’s in the same swamp everybody else is in and nobody can quite figure out how to get out.’
“He’s in the same swamp everybody else is in and nobody can quite figure out how to get out,” says Charlie Arlinghaus, the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in New Hampshire.
The perception that he’s mired in that swamp could prove a dangerous one for Kasich.
At every single town hall he held Tuesday and Wednesday, someone in the audience asked the Ohio governor how he planned to break through Trump’s wall and improve the sagging poll numbers that might keep him from getting into the general election where people believe he would excel.
“I think you would make a great president. . . . The thing is . . . in order to do that, you have to win the nomination. And there’s a guy up there who’s the front-runner who shoots his mouth off, gets all the attention,” said one man at the town hall in Bow, before lecturing Kasich on what he should do to make himself noticed. He was evidently not the only one concerned. It came up so many times in such a short period, it almost began to seem like a planted question.
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Kasich’s response to such concerns is to talk about how making a campaign work is like building a stage — or, on one occasion, a house — from the bottom up and making sure it has a strong foundation so it doesn’t collapse under you. And that is what Kasich is trying to do in New Hampshire, building up a ground game and putting in the retail politicking time to make a mark. Kasich seems up for almost anything the campaign trail can throw at him.
During a walking tour through Littleton Tuesday evening, almost every single person he meets tells him they’re not from New Hampshire, and thus not a part of his target audience. Kasich perseveres with the walk anyway. At one point in the walking tour, he shouts at a couple in a car stopped at a stop sign, their dog hanging out the window. “What’s that dog’s name?” he asks. He does not introduce himself or strike up a conversation with the passers by. (The dog’s name is Rocco.)At a single visit to McFadden’s General Store in the town of Woodstock Wednesday morning, Kasich takes a shot of maple syrup, marvels that moose “can keep their heads up with antlers that big,” tells a story about he and his wife trying to avoid a mean, crazy moose on a past trip, and, referencing the missing parts of the store’s mounted moose head, declares, “I’ve seen a lot of backsides in politics.” Later in the day, he recalls “popping wheelies” on his motorcycle when he was a state representative in Ohio, and beams as he tries on the leather jacket worn by the cop who led the procession at Elvis Presley’s funeral, which is on display at the Police Motorcycle Museum in Meredith.
He seems at ease cracking awkward dad jokes as he wanders small trinket shops or intensely ponders the proper candy choice (cherry gummies, raspberry licorice, dark chocolate nonpareils) at Chutters, home of the Guinness-certified world’s longest candy counter.
Indeed, Kasich tends to get very focused on food. The nonpareils are a subject later that evening at a town hall, as is the mushroom and barley soup he ate for lunch in Tilton earlier that day, which was so good he ordered seconds.
Over the next few weeks, he finally appears ready to give his opponents a mouthful.
“You’ll have enough to chew on, but so will people who are not too enamored of me,” he says, envisioning a fight over his policy proposals. “Which is fine.”
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.