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In N.H., Ohio Gov. John Kasich says he’s ready to get back in the game

  • Republican Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 presidential hopeful, listens to a question during a visit to New England College in Henniker on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. AP



Monitor columnist
Wednesday, April 04, 2018

John Kasich is hanging around the hoop these days, waiting to see if there’s a rebound worth grabbing.

A lover of sports analogies, that’s how the Ohio governor chose to explain why he was in the Granite State on Tuesday, and why he stopped by the Monitor newsroom.

If a Donald Trump jump shot is off line – meaning if in Kasich’s estimation the president continues to insult a chunk of independents and centrist voters – you can bet Kasich will be there, ready to give the first-in-the-nation primary another shot after a solid second-place showing in 2016.

“Be around the rim for when the ball comes off,” Kasich told the Monitor. “You wait, if you’re around the rim, you’re going to get rebounds. That’s the way I look at it. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

There’s no mystery, of course, over what Kasich was doing here. After all, ski season is over, it’s still cold out and there’s mud everywhere.

Kasich said his affection for the state was sincere, then joked about why he came.

“I come for the fish. No, I’m not trying to be silly here, but this is like the beginning of a campaign. I’m going to see a lot of people who supported me, and it does get tongues a-wagging and it gets my voice out there,” he said.

His voice was strong here the last time. The roll-up-your-sleeve aspect of retail politics served Kasich well. He told us he prides himself on needing a shave while working in Ohio, and his conversation comes off as informal, not rehearsed.

And while it’s way too early to label Kasich as a boat rocker within his own party, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that he showed up at a daily newspaper with an entourage in tow, including Republican heavyweight Tom Rath of Concord, and then was shown on a live WMUR stream during his appearance at New England College.

As former New Hampshire speaker of the House and chair of the state Republican party Donna Sytek told me by phone Tuesday, “It’s pretty clear what he is up to. I don’t think he is here for the scenery, although I heard some birds singing this morning.”

Sytek emerged as a Chris Christie supporter late in 2015. As for Trump’s base, she said once a Trump fan, always a Trump fan.

“I talked to a lot of older white men who think that sometimes what he says makes them wince,” Sytek told me. “But overall they like the results of his policies. They will put up with his shenanigans to be guaranteed the results.”

Sytek declined to slam the president. Read between the lines, though, and she did not sound like a Trump supporter, pushing out a laugh when The Wall thing came up.

“People who are here illegally, a lot of them came in the front door, they came in on a visa, they were students and they just stayed,” Sytek told me. “Our immigration problems are way bigger than the number of people who come across the Rio Grande.”

Sytek continued: “People are living in the shadows, they’re just terrified, but they are working, they have children who are United States citizens, and for them to go back to their home country, they wouldn’t know anybody. The lengths they have to go through to stay below the radar and live an otherwise lawful life, I’m losing my mind.”

Kasich, meanwhile, earned praise from Sytek. “He is probably a smart guy to be checking on the depth for any appetite for someone other than Trump among Republicans,” she said. “He has a national view and the hands-on experience to run a state as large and diverse as Ohio is.”

Local business giant Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member, is friendly with Kasich. He praised the man for the manner in which he opposed Trump, which suggests what Duprey thought of both candidates two years ago.

“He had very serious disagreements with some of the substance of the Trump agenda, the style of his campaigning and how he’s conducted himself,” Duprey said by phone. “And I think that is not an uncommon sentiment in lots of the Republican Party.”

That, of course, is what Kasich is waiting for while he stands under the basket. If a signal emerges, one of discontent among party members and voters, he’ll chase that rebound and run with it in another direction, with a plan of his own.

“That’s why I didn’t endorse (Trump), by the way,” Kasich said. “I thought he was driving people into the ditch.”

Those words won’t work for someone like Jeanie Forrester, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. She’s a Trump person, telling me, “I think our president is doing a great job, and I think if Mr. Kasich feels like he wants to do that, it’s a free country.”

Forrester, of course, was referring to Kasich’s trip here. In a formal tone, she said all the right things, that Kasich has every right to pursue a possible run, that his supporters from the 2016 primary are probably thrilled he came, that no one has told her they believe Kasich is driving a wedge into party unity.

But Forrester seemed dismissive as well, saying she’s been too busy recruiting candidates and fundraising for the party to give Kasich a second thought, adding that the silence over his trip here was deafening.

“I don’t hear anyone talking about it,” Forrester told me. “Nobody’s calling me about it except for you. I would guess that major Trump supporters don’t see John Kasich as a threat, because if they did I would be getting calls, and no one is calling me and complaining.”

To be sure, Kasich is a minor blip on the 2020 presidential national radar screen. But he likes us in the Granite State. He beat the odds here in 2016 with his second-place finish, despite a lot less money and name recognition than many of the other Republican candidates.

Kasich said Tuesday he’s proud of that feat, but his momentum dried up like New Hampshire mud in June as the nominating process moved on.

As Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, told me, “He’s trying to keep the embers of his campaign lit up just a little bit. This is one place he did well.

“But it’s really easy to overrate his chances,” Scala continued. “He comes to New Hampshire and gets a lot of media attention, but he showed very little in 2016 other than being a candidate who found a niche here and that was it. To me, he has a lot more to prove as a national candidate than Trump, warts and all.”

Perhaps.

Meanwhile, Kasich will size things up, here, in the White House and across the country, waiting to see if the rebound is worth grabbing. He’s already committed to a Nov. 15 appearance at the Union Leader-sponsored First Amendment Awards event.

“It will get tongues wagging,” Kasich said. “Nothing wrong with that.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)