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Is John Kasich in the Top Tier in 2016?

Rothenberg is expecting a Kasich 2016 bid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“Perpetually in motion, Kasich is a whirlwind of restless energy and is sometimes criticized for being cocky,” reads the 1996 Politics in America profile of the then-Ohio congressman.  

The 1992 edition of The Almanac of American Politics described John R. Kasich as “peppery and brash, spewing forth ideas, a fair percentage of which are good and some of which even get enacted into law.”  

The 2000 edition of Politics in America declared the Ohio Republican “has zeal and vision, but he also tends to run late, thrash his arms and talk in sports metaphors.” After nine terms in the House, during which he chaired the House Budget Committee and acted as a highly visible spokesman for balancing the budget, Kasich decided to run for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. The results were, well, underwhelming.  

He formed an exploratory committee in February 1999, emphasizing his support for tax cuts. Five months later, after raising little money and never getting enough traction to become a factor, Kasich dropped out of the race and endorsed Texas Gov. George W. Bush.  

While a number of Republicans have signaled their interest in running for president in 2016 , and some have taken concrete steps to position themselves for the race, Kasich, never before one to shy away from the media, has been more measured in his early steps.  

But the Ohio governor, who is now serving his second term, has been more explicit about his interest recently, and most political observers would be surprised if he doesn’t eventually enter the race.  

It was back in September 2013 that I last wrote about Kasich, suggesting he was likely to run for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016 if he won a second term as governor, which he did easily after his opponent’s campaign imploded.  

“If he runs for president, Kasich surely will assert that he cut taxes in Ohio at the same time that he eliminated the huge budget shortfall that he inherited. And he’ll tie his success in the Buckeye State to his federal record by saying he balanced the budget when he was on Capitol Hill as well,” I wrote in that column.  

But I also expect Kasich, who expanded Medicaid as governor over the objections of many Republicans, will try to revive some version of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”  

I expect this move because when Kasich exited his previous presidential bid in the summer of 1999, CNN wrote this about him: “Bush's message of ‘compassionate conservatism’ was exactly what he believes. ‘This business of compassionate conservatism, I wish I'd thought it up,’ he said.”  

Kasich will have to find a way to be both an unapologetic conservative and a populist champion of middle class and even working class Americans. He always has emphasized his blue-collar background (his father was a mailman) and has been critical of a GOP that fails to reach out to the needy.  

In an excellent August 2013 piece in the Wall Street Journal, reporter Neil King Jr. quoted the governor as saying he had “a chance to shape what it means to be a Republican.” Kasich told King, “I have a chance to show what it means to be successful economically but also to have a compassionate side, a caring side, to help lift people up."  

If that is Kasich’s message, it will be an interesting one, at least to reporters covering the GOP race.  

Given Ohio’s political importance and the crowded Republican race, it will be fascinating to see if Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign catches fire.  

He must prove he can fundraise along with another Midwestern governor, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and another Bush running for president. And he must show he is “presidential” enough to attract grass-roots support.  

Maybe most importantly, he must prove he is both conservative enough to be nominated and compassionate enough to be elected in November. That could be a difficult task given the current shape of his party .  

Walker is obviously a problem for Kasich, given they hold the same job and Walker was able to shepherd through his legislature a bill limiting state collective-bargaining rights and cutting benefits for public-sector employees, while Kasich lost a similar fight in Ohio when voters repealed the measure in a referendum. (Walker’s proposal exempted most first responders, while Kasich’s did not.)  

Kasich also has an up-and-down relationship with gun rights groups. His vote for the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 drew the ire of the National Rifle Association, though the group still endorsed his re-election as governor last year.  

But the mess that is now the race for the Republican nomination is something of an asset for Kasich, who hopes his reputation as a straight-talker makes him appealing to various elements of the party — each of which is looking for a winner.  

Is Kasich in the top tier for 2016? I don’t know. I think he very well could be, but he needs to demonstrate he can raise money, has the maturity at 62 that he didn’t have as a 46-year-old White House hopeful and can excite a broad swath of Republicans in a crowded field.  

Reporters are likely to find Kasich and his message interesting and newsworthy, and he’ll have a chance to move the needle with them at a Friday media lunch in Washington, D.C. The question, of course, is whether Republican activists and voters will find the Ohio governor equally interesting.  

   

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