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Kasich aims to break 'anger and partisanship' of Washington

The Ohio governor is polling at just 2% nationally. Can his bipartisan message and slow but steady approach help him connect with voters?

HANOVER, New Hampshire -- In front of an enthusiastic audience of students Dartmouth College Thursday, presidential hopeful John Kasich touched on a host topics, from dysfunction in Washington, D.C., to the success of the auto bailout, the Iran deal, criminal justice reform, campaign finance and more, in a wide-ranging town hall with “Morning Joe” co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

Focusing on his theme of “living a life bigger than ourselves,” Kasich said as president he would attempt to usher in a new level of civility between the two parties in Washington, D.C. “It will not be easy to undo all of the anger and partisanship of the last 50 years. It will be difficult,” he acknowledged, but “we need to show respect.”

The Ohio governor was asked to name something President Obama has done well, and mentioned the administration’s handling of the auto industry – “okay, so he did well on that,” he acknowledged, before quickly hitting the president’s broader economic record. Kasich also added that Obama “deserves some credit” for moving Naval forces to the South China Sea. 

But Kasich criticized the nuclear deal with Iran deal, saying “they are getting very, very close to where I would say they are violating this agreement already.” He also critiqued the Obama administration’s current relationship with Israel, lamenting that, “our president won’t even meet with the prime minister. I couldn’t believe it.”

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At a separate town hall meeting Thursday evening in Newport, Kasich further expanded on his vision for the Middle East, saying, “When it comes to our direct intervention, we go places where it absolutely is critical to us. I will tell you this. Without nuclear weapons in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein, there is no way in 1,000 years I would have intervened in Iraq. It’s a civil war. Stay out of that stuff. In Syria I don’t think we should put any troops in there but we should have been helping the opposition to Assad.”

Kasich has been pinning his hopes on performing well in New Hampshire. Last week he traversed up and down the state in a multi-day bus tour, culminating in an announcement of his broad policy proposals to balance the budget within eight years.

When a questioner at the town hall pressed Kasich on criminal justice reform, he applauded the focus on the issue, a topic he speaks freely about on the New Hampshire campaign trail as he mentions that the mentally ill deserve to get help, not to land behind bars. 

“You know, my daughter and I watched ‘60 Minutes’ one night and they were showing all the mentally ill people locked up in a prison,” Kasich recalled earlier in the meeting. “And my daughter, who was at the time maybe 14 or 15, she's 15 now, said to me, ‘dad, why are they putting those people in prison?’ And I said, ‘well, sweetheart, because sometimes it's easy to run over them.’ And that's not what we should do as human beings. So I'm not trying to judge anybody else's morals or their beliefs, but I'm just saying, Joe, to me, I don't think we can ignore people who are down on their luck.”

Prisons also have a responsibility to help inmates develop specific skills, he said, “because every life needs to have the chance to be redeemed.” Kasich added that Ohio was one of the states to get rid of the box on state civil service job applications that asks whether potential employees have ever been convicted of a felony. 

"I tell you, we will get criminal justice reform done,” he stated.

His proposed transportation agenda includes returning the federal gas tax to the states, and during the town hall he mentioned that he supports levying tolls on some roads. “I believe in tolling at times,” he said. “Right now, do you know that if there is federal money in a road, you are not allowed to toll it? That’s ridiculous.”

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Kasich’s New Hampshire swing fell on the same day former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, but he told members of the press after his event in Newport that he was busy all day and wasn’t able to catch any of it. But he did add that criticism of House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent suggestion about the panel’s political implications was unfair. 

“I think Kevin McCarthy really got hammered,” he told NBC News while speaking to reporters after the second town hall of the day. “They took some innocent statement that he made frankly and twisted it and blew it up into something. What I would say is I think it’s important the committee do its job and take a look at this whole thing. I mean we have people that died over there and the question is did somebody not do their job. It’s important we hold people accountable.”

Kasich is currently polling in sixth place in New Hampshire, at 8% in the latest Real Clear Politics Average, down from second place just a few months ago. His national numbers are even worse, showing him tenth in the field with just 2%. But Kasich said he isn’t concerned with the numbers right now because he feels the organization he is building and the day-to-day work he is putting in will start to pay off.

“I believe the way you do it is you're slow, and you're steady, and you are consistent, and you are yourself, and then you build that strength and rise,” he said in the “Morning Joe” town hall meeting. 

“Look, I'm not going to have big national poll numbers right now, and I never sought them. I was governor. I didn't have time to run around and I didn't even think I was going to do this. But you know when I look at where we are today, I know how to do it. I'm not sure than anybody else that's out there really knows how to do this. No one has the experience I have and I felt compelled to do it because frankly I think the Lord's been good to me, he's given me blessings, and I've got to use my skills. And we'll see if they get used.”