AGAINST THE GRAIN

John Kasich Is Stealing Jeb Bush’s Thunder

One of the debate’s biggest winners was the Ohio governor, who made the most of his home-state advantage.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Aug. 6, 2015, 9:01 p.m.

At the in­aug­ur­al GOP pres­id­en­tial de­bate, a swing-state gov­ernor with a re­cord of re­forms and a mes­sage of eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity made his mark. En­ter­ing the de­bate stage to loud ap­plause, the ex­per­i­enced GOP ex­ec­ut­ive touted his brand of com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism. He dis­armed skep­tics of his free-wheel­ing speak­ing style, com­ing pre­pared with crisp talk­ing points ad­voc­at­ing his gov­ern­ing re­cord.

That gov­ernor wasn’t former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush. It was cur­rent Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“Kasich is killing it. Hope­ful. Up­lift­ing. Op­tim­ist­ic. And he has an ap­peal to those who think the GOP doesn’t care,” tweeted Ari Fleis­cher, former spokes­man for George W. Bush.

(RE­LATED: Win­ners: Trump, Kasich, Ru­bio. Losers: Bush, Car­son, Cruz.)

If there’s one im­me­di­ate con­sequence of the hyped first Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial de­bate, it’s that mil­lions of Amer­ic­an view­ers will be learn­ing about many GOP can­did­ates after know­ing little about them be­fore­hand. And one of those less­er-known but highly-ac­com­plished can­did­ates is Kasich, the two-term gov­ernor of the polit­ic­ally-pivotal battle­ground state.

Kasich isn’t go­ing to win over many of the party’s con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots. But he’s not Jon Hunts­man, either. Through the course of the de­bate, he made a com­pel­ling case that he’s as vi­able a con­tender for the es­tab­lish­ment mantle as Bush, who seemed un­usu­ally tent­at­ive and rusty after not be­ing on a de­bate stage for over a dec­ade.

Throughout the de­bate, Kasich es­sen­tially cribbed Bush’s “right to rise” mes­sage with his own flour­ishes. “Lift every­body, unite every­body, and build a stronger United States of Amer­ica again. It will be, it can be done,” Kasich said. He re­it­er­ated his op­pos­i­tion to gay mar­riage, while out­lining his per­son­al tol­er­ance for those with dif­fer­ences. “We need to give every­body a chance, treat every­body with re­spect, and let them share in this great Amer­ic­an dream that we have.” After out­lining the state’s re­cord of eco­nom­ic growth, he con­cluded his clos­ing state­ment by say­ing: “People have hope again in Ohio!”

(RE­LATED: The Case for Kasich)

Kasich soun­ded like a happy war­ri­or on stage, a far cry from his repu­ta­tion for ir­rit­ab­il­ity. And he stayed mostly on mes­sage dur­ing his speak­ing time, an im­press­ive feat for a politi­cian who’s known to go off on dis­tract­ing tan­gents.

Bush made no ma­jor blun­ders, but he looked out of his ele­ment at times. It was clear that his free-wheel­ing style and aver­sion to the cho­reo­graphy of polit­ics was pre­vent­ing him from mak­ing a big­ger mark. He stumbled (again) over a ques­tion about his broth­er’s de­cision to in­vade Ir­aq, clum­sily pivot­ing to Ir­an at the end. He wasn’t as force­ful on his key is­sue — im­mig­ra­tion re­form — as he could have been, es­pe­cially with Don­ald Trump stand­ing next to him on stage. “He seemed a little pale, a little flat,” Fox News mod­er­at­or Chris Wal­lace said in the net­work’s post-de­bate cov­er­age.

Bush didn’t look like the con­fid­ent front-run­ner on stage Thursday night — and he’s been stag­nant in re­cent polling des­pite his name iden­ti­fic­a­tion. If there’s room for an es­tab­lish­ment al­tern­at­ive, Kasich is well-po­si­tioned to cap­it­al­ize. The Ohio gov­ernor’s de­lib­er­ate line of be­ing the “son of a mail­man” of­fers a stark con­trast to Bush’s elite up­bring­ing. And if style mat­ters as much as sub­stance to Re­pub­lic­ans — something that Don­ald Trump’s surge has demon­strated — Kasich’s abil­ity to con­nect with voters emo­tion­ally trumps Bush’s abil­ity to do the same.

(RE­LATED: I Stayed Off Twit­ter and Watched the De­bate Like a Nor­mal Per­son)

New Hamp­shire is shap­ing up to be ground zero for that wide-open battle, one where Kasich has been fo­cus­ing his ef­forts and rising in the polls. The Ohio gov­ernor’s su­per PAC has already spent about $3 mil­lion to raise his pro­file in the state — and his spend­ing has got­ten some res­ults. The Real­Clear­Polit­ics av­er­age of polling in the state finds Kasich sur­ging to fourth place this month, win­ning over 8 per­cent of the vote.

The next month will provide a test of wheth­er Kasich can trans­late that po­ten­tial in­to na­tion­al sup­port. With mil­lions of view­ers get­ting their first ex­pos­ure to him, he took every ad­vant­age of the op­por­tun­ity. Jeb Bush looked like an aw­fully tenu­ous front-run­ner Thursday night.

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