Politics & Policy

John Kasich’s Presidential Campaign Is Already Facing Its First Big Test

Kasich makes his case in Columbus. (Ty Wright/Getty)

Columbus, Ohio — Governor John Kasich has 16 days to earn a spot on the debate stage in his back yard in Cleveland. And he has six months to make himself a factor in the GOP presidential primary.

Over 42 minutes on Tuesday morning, Kasich rambled his way into the presidential race. His was the long speech of a Republican playing a long game: It largely eschewed red meat for conservatives, in favor of a focus on the morality of governance. His major pitch revolved around what he sees as a proven record of picking and winning principled fights.

Anticipation for Kasich’s announcement was high here, with a crowd of supporters packing the student union at Ohio State University, and more onlookers craning over the second- and third-floor balconies to watch. Ninety minutes before the speech, the line of people waiting to enter wound down the block outside.

Known for his unscripted style, Kasich spoke without a teleprompter, though he intermittently glanced down at what appeared to be notes on the podium in front of him. His speech meandered from topic to topic, with sudden and abrupt transitions that were often difficult to follow. His announcement that he was officially running for president came about 19 minutes in, emerging out of the blue after a reflection on the first time he set foot on the Ohio State campus as a freshman. His speech seemed not to end so much as come to an unexpected halt.

But amid Kasich’s ruminations and occasional digressions, he spelled out the message of a general-election candidate. There was no red meat, none of the talk of immigration or abortion that filled the announcement speeches of many of his competitors, such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

The first test is 16 days away: the first GOP presidential debate in Cleveland, to which only the top ten Republicans in national polling will earn an invitation.

“Policy is far more important than politics or ideology,” Kasich declared.

His policy prescriptions were wrapped in the rhetoric of morality. “Economic growth is not an end to itself,” he said. “Creating jobs,” he later added, “is our highest moral purpose.”

Kasich is well-positioned to stick around for the long haul: He has a 60 percent approval rating as the governor of perhaps the most crucial swing-state in American presidential politics, and he has a record and a message that would resonate in a general election. But as the 16th and final entrant into the GOP presidential primary field, Kasich will need to make himself a contender soon if he hopes to stick around for the long haul.

The first test is 16 days away: the first GOP presidential debate in Cleveland, to which only the top ten Republicans in national polling will earn an invitation. Recent national polls put him in the cluster of candidates just outside the top ten. If the debate were held today, Kasich would not make the cut, an especially awkward problem given the event’s location in his home state. Not being in the debate won’t sink anyone’s candidacy, but if Kasich can get enough of a bump from his announcement to take the stage, it would be a show of force.

After that, it’s on to the New Hampshire primary, the early contest where Kasich looks to have the best shot at a win, and where he seems to be focusing the bulk of his energy. He will hold five public events there on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, before flying to South Carolina, Iowa, and Michigan. Republican operatives said the Ohio governor would need a win, or at least a strong performance in that primary to give him a reason to stay in the race.

#related#Kasich has “a very small window to jump into the next level,” says Ohio Republican operative Bob Kish.

Kasich made no direct mention in his speech of the 15 Republicans against whom he must compete before he gets to the general election; there were no subtle jabs or obvious references. But Kasich did seem to be conscious of at least one of his opponents.

“The developmentally disabled, they have a right to rise,” Kasich declared, quoting Jeb Bush’s campaign slogan, and the name of the Super PAC supporting his campaign. He appeared to catch himself a moment later: “they have a right to,” he said, then paused, seeming to choke down a word, “to be successful.”

Kasich’s own slogan, if this speech was any indication, is a defiant one, a rallying cry that acknowledges the upward climb he faces into the top tier.

“They said it couldn’t be done, and we proved them wrong,” Kasich said repeatedly of his past races. “Together, we’ll prove them wrong again.”

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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