COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Gov. John Kasich became the 16th Republican to enter the 2016 presidential race on Tuesday, telling supporters here he has the skills and experience to run the country.
“I have the experience and the testing, the testing, which shapes you and prepares you for the most important job in the world,” Kasich said at Ohio State University. “And I believe I know how to work and help restore this great United States, and I have to tell you it’s a daunting challenge.”
Kasich presented an optimistic vision of America’s future, reciting a series of challenges the country has overcome, including wars and the Great Depression. “It’s the challenges that make you better,” Kasich said. “I have lived through them, and I have become stronger for them, and America has become stronger for them, by staying together, by staying together with our eyes on the horizon, the future.”
While Kasich joins an already crowded Republican field, the message he’s adding stands out from the pack.
“Just read Matthew 25. Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked?” Kasich said in January. “If we’re doing things like that, to me that is conservatism.”
Kasich runs the state that all but decides the outcome of the general election. He has a budget-cutting, fiscally conservative past, and over the last year he’s toured the country promoting a balanced budget amendment. But in early Republican nominating states, Kasich’s been preaching a message of social welfare rooted in faith that contrasts with many of the go-it-alone pitches coming from other GOP candidates.
“Economic growth is not an end unto itself. It’s a means to an end, where everybody gets lifted. If you’re drug addicted, mentally ill, working poor, developmentally disabled, we want everybody to have a place — if you’re a member of the minority community. Is that an odd Republican position? No, I think it was the way that Reagan looked at things,” Kasich told CNBC in an interview earlier this month.
Kasich’s policy positions don’t line up with most of the rest of the field, either. He’s open to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, long held an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association because of his vote for the assault weapons ban in the 1990s, and recently fought with a Republican legislature to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“Sometimes, as a leader, you have to walk a lonely road,” Kasich told reporters in July.
The whole package could make for a tough sell with the conservative activists who often play a key role in early nominating contests — particularly in Iowa. And despite his perch as a swing state governor, Kasich is likely to struggle to raise money, earn media coverage and break into the top tier of Republican candidates.
If Kasich does break through, it’s likely to be in New Hampshire, his advisers say. Kasich has hired longtime GOP strategist John Weaver, who was an early adviser to John McCain during the 2008 cycle, to oversee his campaign; ad man Fred Davis will work for the outside groups supporting Kasich’s bid.
So far, they’re giving voters the soft sell: The first campaign video highlights Kasich’s blue-collar background and emphasizes a message of inclusion. Kasich grew up outside Pittsburgh as the son of a mailman, then went on to Ohio State University. He was raised Catholic, but had abandoned religion until both of his parents were killed by a drunk driver in a car crash when he was 35.
“I search for what the Lord wants me to do,” Kasich said in his State of the State address in 2014. “I know that my purpose on this Earth, whether I’m the governor or whether I’m a has-been, is to bring about a healing.”
Also included in the video is his role in the fiscal fights of the 1990s, when he chaired the House Budget Committee and played a key role in the negotiations that balanced the federal budget.
That experience led him to try running for president in the 2000 cycle — but he dropped out in the summer of 1999, before the race really got off the ground, to endorse George W. Bush.
“I was too young, I didn’t have any money and hadn’t accomplished much,” Kasich told msnbc in an interview last month.
Whether it can be different this time around likely depends on whether Kasich can be disciplined over the course of a long campaign. He has a famously short temper and has earned criticism for his blunt comments, like when he called a cop who pulled him over an “idiot.” Years ago, he was thrown out of a Grateful Dead concert after he tried to get backstage — and was threatened with a permanent ban from the group’s shows.
“My wife … who was my girlfriend at the time, [was] sitting at home and CNN comes on and says we got a story about congressman and the Grateful Dead,” he told msnbc. “And she’s like that better not be John. It was.”
Even in the months leading up to the announcement, he’s had to start to check himself.
“I didn’t think I was going to be back up here again because, frankly, I thought Jeb was just going to suck all the air out of the room, and it just hasn’t happened,” Kasich told New Hampshire voters in June.
The frankness — unusual for a candidate, if not necessarily for his or her advisers — earned him some blowback. Just a day or two later, as he held press conferences and conducted a series of interviews with reporters at a confab hosted by Mitt Romney in Park City, Utah, Kasich was pointedly careful. He demurred when asked about the Republicans already crowding the field, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“The minute I say something about him, then it’s like I’m going after him,” Kasich told Bloomberg News. “How am I doing on this discipline?”