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John Kasich confronts first 2016 hurdle: Donald Trump

Despite his impressive credentials, the GOP 2016 hopeful is tanking in the polls.

WASHINGTON -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is set to become the 16th major Republican presidential candidate when he announces his campaign later this month, couldn’t have better credentials: popular governor in a swing state coming off a monster re-election in 2014, former House budget chairman, former candidate for president.

Given that background, one could understand why the famously prickly politician looked less than pleased on Tuesday as he met with reporters on Capitol Hill, whose questions mostly boiled down to “Why aren’t you doing better?” As of today, he’s averaging between 1% and 2% support in national surveys of GOP voters, raising the serious possibility that he will not meet the polling requirements for the first Republican debate in August.

“I’m not really thinking about that,” Kasich said when asked whether Donald Trump, currently surging in the polls, might keep him off the stage. “Let’s not put carts before horses, I mean we still have a month to go, we'll see what happens,” he said after another reporter asked whether missing the debate would be a hindrance.

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A third reporter elaborated further, asking Kasich what it said about his party that “a two-term sitting governor of Ohio is uncertain if he’ll be in a Cleveland debate ... while somebody who’s basically known for being in a reality TV show” is almost a lock to make the cut.

“You judge that,” Kasich replied. “I don’t have any comment.” Asked yet again about the debates, he declined to guess whether he’d raise his numbers enough in time for the Aug. 6 gathering. “I don’t make predictions – I left that to Muhammad Ali years ago,” he said.

Kasich pushed back on a reporter’s question about whether he was hobbled by a “late start” to the campaign that allowed some of his key advisers and supporters in Ohio to line up behind rival campaigns in the interim. “First of all, I don’t know that I got started late,” he said. “You said started late. I don’t know if I started late. Look, my number one purpose is to make sure that Ohio works and it remains my number one purpose. I didn’t travel to other states, I never even left Ohio really to go out of state until the election was over.”

Still another reporter asked about Kasich’s temperament, quoting a profile by The Atlantic’s Molly Ball that described him as “kind of a jerk.”

“I worked for a guy in 1976 at the Republican Convention, he was pretty darn direct,” Kasich said. “His name was Ronald Reagan and I think he did pretty well.”

This is what it’s like to start a campaign as an underdog. Kasich has some big fans within the GOP and his approval ratings are strong in Ohio, but he’s also alienated some conservatives with his emphasis on compromise – most notably his decision to accept Obamacare funding to expand health care coverage to low-income constituents.

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Perhaps more problematic, he finds himself squeezed in a crowded field that includes several candidates, most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who are selling themselves to voters and donors as pragmatic state executives who will concentrate on boosting growth for businesses rather than getting bogged down in side issues. The field also will soon include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who takes a more hardline approach but who, like Kasich, is emphasizing his working class Midwestern roots to pitch the party on a rust belt revival in 2016 should they win the nomination.

To Kasich, the path to victory is to build up his visibility in the early primary states – especially New Hampshire – as a springboard to national attention. He offered a preview of his sales pitch on Tuesday, recounting how he was a “chief architect” of the last balanced budget in Congress, how he honed his foreign policy skills on the Armed Services Committee, how he closed a gaping deficit in Ohio after taking office in 2011 and oversaw a rapid decline in the unemployment rate, and how he worked to help poverty-stricken people living “in the shadows.”

“I think Americans today are not so much interested in what you’re going to do, but they’re interested in what you have done,” he said, teasing a contrast in a race that includes three first-term senators. “Because we tried ‘what you’re going to do’ for the last eight years and we didn’t get good results.”

He won’t be the only one running that playbook. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another state leader pairing tough talk with a message of compromise, is likely to park himself in New Hampshire over the next six months in a bid to post his own anemic numbers. 

Kasich has a compelling argument on paper, but he needs voters to hear it first in a cacophonous GOP primary -- that means raising enough money to get on air, boosting his poll numbers, qualifying debates and performing well, and finding a way to quiet the process questions that are dominating his campaign early on. The clock is ticking.