MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) – If Ohio Gov. John Kasich joins the 2016 Republican presidential race, his friends and foes will be watching to see if his frenetic, unfiltered personality lights a fire in the contest or proves his undoing.
You never really know with Kasich, a politician who can be just as abrasive as potential rival Chris Christie and may be even less guarded, now that the New Jersey governor is watching his words.
One longtime adviser to Kasich, former Ohio House Speaker JoAnn Davidson, speaks of his “boyish enthusiasm.” She says his unusual style excites those around him and is the key to all he gets done.
Others, even within his own party, are skeptical Kasich’s blunt approach will last long under national scrutiny.
This, despite an impressive resume topped by being a two-term governor in a pivotal swing state and architect of the 1997 federal balanced-budget agreement when he was House budget chairman.
Kasich visited New Hampshire last month in his first political appearance in the state since he flirted with a White House run more than 15 years ago. He’s already scheduled to return in mid-April, and on the same day he visits South Carolina, another key early-voting state on the primary calendar.
The former investment banker and Fox TV host regularly goes off script, a dangerous habit in the world of presidential politics where the cameras never stop rolling.
And his nervous energy can cross into petulance. An apparently bored Kasich once wandered the stage during a panel discussion with other governors at a Republican Governors Association event – while his colleagues were talking. He called a police officer an “idiot” while addressing a public gathering and warned lobbyists they’d be run over if they didn’t get on his bus. (He meant that figuratively, however.)
Ohio-based Democratic strategist Dale Butland said Kasich’s lack of filters makes him a wild card.
“Whatever’s in his head tends to come out of his mouth,” Butland said. “You can hide that for a little bit, but in that fishbowl of a national election, who you really are tends to come out.”
Gerald Austin, an Ohio-based political strategist who’s watched Kasich for decades, said the governor’s ways are “different from everybody’s” and may be his secret weapon.
“He’s going to get someplace, if he decides to do something here, based on his personality,” Austin said. “There are issues, yes, but the way he stands out is the way he’ll deliver on talking about those issues in a totally different way than Republicans are used to seeing.”
Said Davidson: “If you take the personality away – it’s his perseverance, it’s his passion, it’s the I-don’t-give-up – he wouldn’t be able to accomplish all he does.”
But Sandy Theis, who leads the liberal think tank ProgressOhio, said Kasich’s off-the-cuff name-calling, public outbursts and dismissive remarks over the years amount to “an anger management issue.”
The 62-year-old Kasich pays little heed to critics. He wants to “do good things” like erasing Ohio’s projected $8 billion budget deficit while lowering taxes and increasing assistance to the poor.
In his 30th-floor office overlooking downtown Columbus, Kasich told The Associated Press that he’s comfortable in his own skin.
“I’m a normal person, but that makes me unorthodox in politics,” he said in an interview before his New Hampshire trip. “Because when you’re in politics, you’re supposed to act a certain way. I act the way I want to act. I don’t act the way that somebody else tells me to be.”
Indeed, while courting conservative activists, Kasich defends his decision to expand Medicaid as part of the federal health care law that conservatives hate. He supports government services for the poor, defends Common Core education standards, and criticizes those who insult President Barack Obama.
Yet he’s hardly known outside Ohio. In New Hampshire, a state flooded with presidential prospects in recent weeks, polling suggests that 7 in 10 voters don’t have an opinion of him. His obscurity was evident when he visited a New Hampshire community college.
“I’m in politics. Did you know that?” Kasich asked 19-year-old Eric Butler after they’d chatted for several minutes about sports and education. “Not until now,” Butler responded.
Kasich says he’s matured and evolved since most of the nation last saw him and he’s eager to share Ohio’s economic policy successes regardless of any presidential run.
“You get a short view with me or a short time with me, you go, ‘Wow, what the heck do we have here?'” he said. “Well, I’m an energetic guy, and I’m not going to change it.”
Carr Smyth reported from Columbus, Ohio.
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