“We’re coming up!” John Kasich yelled over his shoulder as he made for the exit after his 82nd New Hampshire town hall wrapped up in Amherst on Tuesday.
He was talking to Arnie Arnesen, a progressive radio show host and longtime activist from Concord who followed him back in 1999 when he first considered running for president. The two had just shared a quick hug.
“This was an appeal to un-declareds. It was untarnished.” Arnesen said of Kasich’s stump speech with a smile after he left. “It was the positive message that you kind of like but aren’t sure is going to resonate in this campaign.”
With less than two weeks to go before the first-in-the-nation primary Kasich has honed a message that is relentlessly positive, with an urgency that is sometimes disarming.
It’s a message that has won him support among voices like The New York Times, which announced its endorsement of Kasich Saturday.
“Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, though a distinct underdog, is the only plausible choice for Republicans tired of the extremism and inexperience on display in this race. And Mr. Kasich is no moderate. As governor, he’s gone after public-sector unions, fought to limit abortion rights and opposed same-sex marriage,” reads the editorial.
When asked if an endorsement from the paper, known for its stereotypically liberal readership, would help him with Republican voters Kasich told reporters it was about bringing people together. “When people like The New York Times say, ‘This is a guy that can bring people together and solve problems,’ I’d like to know how that’s not helpful. I think it’s really helpful.”
He also tweeted his thanks to the newspaper.
All about New Hampshire
Kasich has bet his candidacy on the small state of New Hampshire, spending more time here than any other candidate, according to New England Channel News’ candidate tracker. He left Iowa four days before the caucus there for a final 11-day swing leading up to New Hampshire’s primary.
Arnesen bets that undeclared voters could be just the edge he’s looking for against the other “governing” candidates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
In New Hampshire “undeclared” voters represent more than 40% of the state’s voters and can choose to vote in either party’s primary on Election Day, although many of them consistently lean to one party.
A recent poll from WBUR shows around one third of undeclared voters have yet to decide on a party for the February 9 primary.
Arnesen thinks that Donald Trump’s dominance in the race has actually been a blessing-of-sorts for Kasich, scooping up hard line anti-establishment and conservative voters and leaving truly independent voters looking for a centrist candidate with experience.
It’s a theory the campaign doesn’t discourage.
Kasich has recently shown a spike in polls in the state and has picked up a string of endorsements from newspapers known for supporting centrist Republican candidates, such as the Times, Concord Monitor, the Boston Globe and the Keene Sentinel.
The latest public poll from Suffolk University shows him tied for second place with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. However other polls show Kasich tied with a cluster of candidates including Cruz, Bush, Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio vying for space below front-runner Donald Trump, many within the margin of error of one another.
Kasich seemed cheery and comfortable in Amherst as he fielded questions and interacted with voters, telling the crowd that some candidates can yell or blame others but that he wants “to live on the sunny side of the street.”
When asked to contrast himself with other candidates by a voter (“Christie and the other guy…. Bush”) Kasich said “no” before turning to his record in Ohio.
“I’m an Independent guy, the Republican party is my vehicle but it has never been my master,” Kasich told a town hall audience in Keene Saturday.
“But I am a conservative who believes that conservative principles can help us to rise,” Kasich added. “People who may not think exactly the way that I do that want to come and play in the orchestra they’re all going to be welcome.”
Attacks from the field
As Kasich has shown movement in polling groups supporting other candidates have hammered him with ads and mailers attacking him for being too liberal on policies like Medicare and Common Core. But several voters at Kasich’s event told CNN those positions didn’t bother them.
Mary Epstein, 56, was one of the first voters to walk into Kasich’s Amherst town hall and told CNN she identifies as Independent. She voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 (“big mistake”) but is not considering Democratic candidates this year. She was leaning heavily towards Kasich and was seeing him for the second time to lock it in.
“He reminds me of Jon Huntsman and I liked him,” Epstein said, tying Kasich to the moderate Republican presidential candidate who dropped out after finishing third in New Hampshire four years ago. “I think he’s very practical, and he seems to have a plan.”
In Amherst, Kasich fielded one question on his support for Common Core standards by saying, “I don’t know what that really means, let me tell you what I’m for, in my state I’m for high standards and a curriculum set by local school boards.”
Another voter asked him for advice to give the state legislature on trying to expand Medicare. Kasich said he wasn’t so sure they wanted his advice, but said he did it in Ohio to bring back money “we send” to Washington for treating the mentally ill and drug addicted in Ohio.
Kasich’s campaign acknowledges the candidate’s appeal to moderate voters but says they are competitive among a spectrum of conservative voters as well.
Steve Richardson, 77, of Bedford, is a registered Republican and is considering the more conservative Cruz, though he was leaning towards Kasich and was sitting in the front row in Amherst. He told CNN he wasn’t bothered by many of the recent attacks.
“Well you know you’re never going to get any one candidate that fulfills all your desires,” Richardson said. “I think it means a lot, what you’ve done, you can say anything but what you’ve done is what really counts I think.”