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John Kasich announces 2016 run, but issues with right loom large

Ohio Gov. John Kasich entered the presidential race on Tuesday, but conservatives are skeptical of his candidacy.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich threw his hat into the presidential ring on Tuesday, pitching himself as a pragmatic problem solver who would reach out to voters far beyond the Republican base.

“I am here to ask you for your prayers, for your support, for your efforts because I have decided to run for president of the United States,” Kasich told a cheering crowd of hundreds of supporters jammed into Ohio State’s student union building.

Kasich’s speech was long, winding, and delivered without a teleprompter, broadly recounting his blue-collar roots as the son of a mailman and calling for renewed empathy towards the sick, the disadvantaged, and the jobless. He asked the audience to consider African-Americans who feel the system “works against [them],” to imagine parents struggling to find health coverage to raise autistic children, to think of middle aged wage workers losing their jobs with retirement within sight.

“Policy is far more important than politics or ideology or any of the other nonsense we see,” Kasich said.

RELATED: Why Ohio's John Kasich faces such long odds

It was a genuine, from-the-heart pitch, albeit with some slip-ups along the way. At one point he repeated rival Jeb Bush’s own campaign slogan – which Kasich has mocked in the past – by calling for a “right to rise.”

The big question is whether Kasich can stand out in a crowded field with with a Republican electorate that frequently demands greater purity from their candidates. He’s yet to register in the polls despite his killer résumé as a popular two-term governor of a presidential battleground state, a onetime high-ranking leader in Congress, and a former Fox News host. In particular, Kasich rankled the right by accepting Medicaid dollars through Obamacare that other GOP governors, including 2016 rivals Scott Walker and Rick Perry, rejected.

Kasich himself ran for president in 2000, but many observers are struck by his similarities to a more recent candidate: former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Huntsman, who ran in 2012, clashed with conservatives on issues like climate change and was widely regarded as too close to President Obama after serving as his ambassador to China. Kasich’s campaign and super PAC includes a number of his former staff, including strategists John Weaver and Matt David, and famed ad man Fred Davis. Like Huntsman, he’s betting his primary campaign on New Hampshire (he was introduced by the state’s former senator, John Sununu) where he’ll look to win voters over one town hall at a time. 

"[Kasich’s] roll-out reminds me so much of my dad's four years ago,” Huntsman’s daughter and MSNBC host Abby Huntsman tweeted. “Same team, same timing, similar strategy. Hope it ends better for him.” 

Kasich and his campaign believe his long record of cutting taxes in Ohio, negotiating a balanced budget in the House, and opposition to abortion should make his conservative credentials clear.

“In 1976 I went to the convention in Kansas City and not only worked for Ronald Regan, but I worked with Ronald Reagan,” Kasich said, reminding voters of his long history with the party.

He also leans heavily on his working class upbringing as well, a distinction from Huntsman, whose billionaire father helped underwrite his campaign.

“I’m John Kasich, I’m not anybody else,” Kasich said when asked by msnbc about the Huntsman comparison earlier this month. “I come from McKees Rocks, my father carried mail on his back, I lived in a town where if the wind blew the wrong way people found themselves out of work and I think I understand the anxieties of this country,”

Kasich is not the only candidate to ruffle the base – Bush, like Kasich, also backs legal status for undocumented immigrants and Common Core education standards, for example. But as Trump’s rise with the right -- despite a long history of Democratic donations and positions – indicates, primaries are often as much about symbolism and style as checking issue boxes. In Kasich’s case it’s not just that he’s bucked the national party on certain issues, it’s that he’s criticized them in ways that are especially galling to conservatives. 

On Medicaid, for example, he’s framed opposition to federal spending on low-income Americans a “war on the poor” and warned that St. Peter himself would look down on politicians who focused on “keeping government small” over helping the disadvantaged. 

‘When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small,” Kasich told reporters in 2013. “But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.’”

Republicans are especially sensitive to suggestions that their policies are cruel or miserly, which is central to Democrats’ attacks every election year. Similar language to Kasich’s has felled candidates in the recent past. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who positioned himself as a hard charging conservative in his 2012 run, hobbled his campaign by saying Republicans who opposed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants don’t “have a heart.”

Kasich’s first hurdle will be getting to the debates. His late announcement means he’s unlikely to hit the polling requirements for the first main debate on August 6 in his home state even if he gets a bump from his announcement, but that gathering figures to be so dominated by Trump’s presence that it might not cost him much publicity. His outside groups have raised over $11 million so far, meaning he’ll have opportunities to get his message out either way. We’ll soon find out if Republicans want to hear it.