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Kasich Heads To Iowa

Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Kasich has been speaking to business leaders and other voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, in an effort to distinguish himself to potential primary voters in a crowded Republican field.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has not yet announced he’s running for president. But today, he makes his first visit of the year to Iowa, home of the nation’s first presidential caucuses.

And if he wants a chance to join the first GOP debate in Cleveland later this summer, he’ll have to declare—and become one of the 10 highest-polling candidates.

Over the past few months, he’s been speaking to business leaders and other voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, in an effort to distinguish himself to potential primary voters in a crowded Republican field.

Gov. John Kasich is polling at about 2 percent—below long-shot candidates like Donald Trump. Still, he’s attracted some national attention as he gears up for a presidential run. Much of that attention focuses on his unconventional approach, emphasizing practicality and crossover appeal rather than adherence to party dogma.

That was the case in a talk earlier this month recorded by New Hampshire Public Radio.

“We can get on a path to a balanced budget, we can begin to deal with our entitlements, we can settle down immigration,” Kasich said. “But it cannot be done with some strict ideology and without understanding how you get other people in the other political party to support your efforts.”

He was speaking to a group of business people brought together by Renee Plummer, an influential New Hampshire Republican who has invited other high profile White House hopefuls to her candidate roundtables.  While she hasn’t endorsed a favorite, Plummer says she likes that Kasich didn’t spend his time trashing Democrats.

“He said, ‘You know, I’m not here to go ahead and start to bash the other side, I’m here to move the country forward,’” Plummer says. “Once you start with me, you start going after the other party, I don’t want to talk to you.”

You might say Kasich had tailored his message to his host. But it’s one he’s repeating throughout New Hampshire.

Neil Levesque directs the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. He says Kasich’s recent speech to the institute stood out from those of other likely candidates.

“In the first 10 minutes, he talked about the tragedy of heroin addiction, cycles of poverty and mental illness,” Levesque says. “And the fact is that most of us who are listening to the radio or watching TV are going to see the top story tonight related to one of those three issues.”

But there’s another side to that message some see as a possible liability for Kasich among Republican primary voters—his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

It’s “a massive albatross,” in the words of Drew Cline, the editorial page editor for the conservative Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire.

“So If I’m looking at multiple governors who have solid track records…I’m looking at him and I'm going, ‘Well, you know, expanding Medicaid? I don’t know,’” Cline says.

Kasich has defended his decision, sometimes in religious terms, saying St. Peter won’t ask what you did to shrink government, but what you did for the poor.

Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina, says that pitch might be a tough sell for religious conservatives.

“That is not usually what the strong Republican evangelicals are looking to hear,” Huffmon says. “They want to hear more about opposition to same-sex marriage, about opposition to abortion and things like that. So at best it’s a way to mute criticism, but it is not a way to completely win over the people who might criticize him for it.”

To be sure, Kasich is also pointing to his record as a fiscal conservative. He highlights his role in the crafting of a budget agreement when he served in Congress in the 1990s. He’s been campaigning for a federal balanced-budget amendment and talks up tax cuts he’s passed in Ohio.

“Look, I’m a conservative, been a conservative all my life. I balance budgets, I cut taxes, I deregulate things that make sense,” Kasich told reporters in New Hampshire. “But I also think that people who are living in the shadows need to be helped. And I don't think any of this—I think this is really what Ronald Reagan felt, you know?”

Kasich’s name hasn’t even been included yet in some South Carolina polls, but University of South Carolina political science professor Todd Shaw says it’s too early to say the governor has been lost in the mix.

“Really until you get into the sort of start of the primaries themselves and looking at the money game, looking at who’s aligning behind the candidates, what their ground game looks like in each of these states, particularly withn these states, and what's their strategy—what do they see as sort of their clear strategy to the nomination, it’s fair game,” Shaw says.

After all, it’s only June. The Iowa caucuses are more than seven months away.