Ohio Gov. John Kasich just barely squeezed into the last spot in the first prime-time Republican presidential debate on Thursday night. But he emerged a surprising standout on his home turf in Cleveland – delivering a solid performance he badly needed to differentiate himself from the very crowded GOP field.
He could use the help. The 63-year-old, two-term governor announced his 2016 candidacy less than a month ago, and has very little name recognition outside the Buckeye State. Critics grumble that he’s got a prickly personality. But he still managed to edge out former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and avoid the so-called “kids table” debate for those candidates who did not poll in the top 10.
Sure, controversial, never-shy GOP front-runner Donald Trump may have stolen the overall spotlight at the debate. And the biggest brawl of the night belonged to Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who sparred over national security. But Kasich had his moments, using his home-field advantage, touting his blue-collar upbringing as the son of a mailman, and receiving support and some of the loudest applause of the night while defending his decision to expand Medicaid through President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He also delivered a surprisingly compassionate answer when he was asked about gay marriage.
Kasich raised his profile, and looked presidential. Despite barely making the top 10, he was the fifth most mentioned candidate on Twitter throughout the broadcast of the debate on Thursday night. It was also clear that Americans wanted to know more about the little known governor with top Google questions during the Q&A on Kasich, including “How old is John Kasich?,” “What religion is John Kasich?,” and “Who is John Kasich?”
In a moment that could have been a major stumbling block, Kasich was asked about his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, a major GOP bugaboo. But the swing-state governor passionately defended his decision, saying, “I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio, to do what? To treat the mentally ill. Ten thousand of them sit in our prisons at $22,500 a year. I’d rather get them the medication so they can lead a decent life. And to applause from his home state audience, the governor, known as a budget hawk, added, “And finally we went from $8 billion in the hole to $2 billion in the black. We’ve cut $5 billion in taxes.”
Kasich also drew applause when asked the thorny question about what he would do if his child were gay. The governor said that while he believes in traditional marriage, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage and “we’ll accept it,” adding he recently went to a gay friend’s wedding. He continued, “If one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.” It was a very different audience reaction from just four years ago, when a gay soldier ask about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and was booed, while GOP candidates did not acknowledge the audience response.
The final standout moment came when Kasich refrained from criticizing Trump, taking a diplomatic route and saying the real estate mogul has demonstrated Americans are frustrated. “Donald Trump’s hitting a nerve in this country ... He’s got solutions. Some of us have other solutions.” Kasich also earned laughs when Trump acknowledged giving money to many politicians, including those on the stage. “You’re welcome to give to me, Donald, if you’d like,” Kasich joked.
Former Sen. John Sununu, a Kasich supporter, said after the debate that the governor “talked about what he had done as a congressman, what he had done in Ohio, what drives and motivates him, his vision. When you talk about those things passionately and from experience, then leadership qualities come through. They see that you’re poised, they see that you’re presidential ... that’s why John Kasich did so well.”
Kasich, who has worn multiple hats -- a congressman for nearly 20 years, a Fox News pundit, and a Lehman Brothers executive -- will still face long odds. Strict conservatives are hesitant about the governor, not only for supporting Medicaid, but also for saying he’d back a possible pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. He also has an “F” rating from the influential National Rifle Association for backing the assault weapons ban in the 1990s. It’s also not his first attempt at seeking the nation’s highest office. As a congressman, he ran in the 2000 cycle but dropped out to back George W. Bush for the nomination.
According to the latest Real Clear Politics average of polling date surrounding the New Hampshire Republican primary -- which Kasich has been placing a lot of emphasis on -- the governor is in fourth place with 8.8% support. He trails Trump’s 25.3%, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 11.3%, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 9.5%.