LACONIA — John Kasich is fond of saying that "the Republican Party has always been my vehicle, but it has never been my master," and his showing in the New Hampshire Presidential Primary will likely hinge less on his appeal to the party faithful than to the independent voters.
Speaking about the dysfunction in Washington to some 175 people at the Gilford Community Church this week, Kasich said, "Our politicians have forgotten they are Americans before they are Republicans or Democrats." At the Laconia Rotary Club a day later, he lauded the New Hampshire lawmakers, who the day before "forgot their party affiliation and put aside their ideology" to adopt measures to address the scourge of drug addiction.
Kasich has staked his bid for the presidency on the New Hampshire voters, 44 percent of whom are neither Republicans nor Democrats. No candidate has spent more time in the state where he has already taken questions at some 60 town halls and intends to spend all but two of the remaining days until the primary on Feb. 9. Moreover, he has spent much of his time in counties President Obama carried in 2012.
There are signs this strategy is lending momentum to his candidacy. Six polls this month show him placing in the money, though still well behind Donald Trump, in New Hampshire. Several polls indicate he enjoys the highest favorability rating of the Republican candidates among independent voters. And he is drawing larger crowds and more press, along with fire from the super PAC backing Jeb Bush, which dropped a direct mail piece this week.
Despite the disdain Republican voters have expressed for insiders, Kasich, who served 18 years in Congress and two terms as governor of Ohio, touts his experience.
"That's why I'm doing this," he said, "because I've done it before." While some of his rivals have tapped the anger and fear of voters, Kasich insisted "We're not an angry people," and declared "I don't believe in playing on people's worst fears." Other candidates talk of "losing our country" or "taking our country back," but Kasich said "I don't think our problems are that big, not so complicated and difficult to solve."
As the GOP field has come to resemble an circular firing squad, Kasich has stepped outside the circle, refraining from directly attacking his rivals. Likewise, his appearances lack the partisan edge honed so sharply by other Republican candidates. He has avoided or muted criticism of the Obama Administration, likening himself to his bus driver, who looks down the road, not in the rearview mirror.
"America's best days are clearly ahead," Kasich said. "I think you should respect the President," explaining that without respect there is no order and "things break down." He has repeatedly stressed that major issues like balancing the federal budget, reforming the tax code and restructuring the entitlement programs cannot be addressed without cooperation from both parties. "Don't let politics get in the way of fixing things," he said.
At the same time, Kasich has not tailored his message to what has become conservative orthodoxy.
"If it weren't for immigration, I'd probably be running for president of Croatia," remarked, dismissing proposals to deport illegal immigrants and bar the door to Muslims. Although he favors replacing Obamacare, he said "You can't just uninsure people who have insurance." Rather than resist an increase in the minimum wage, he would urge the states to address the issue. And he would enforce, not scuttle, the nuclear accord with Iran.
Kasich noted that successful governance requires "people to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, that life is not just about them." He added that "My greatest gift is getting people to do what they know they should do, but don't want to do," a remark the primary will put to the test.
In Gilford, Kasich was philosophical about his fortunes. After a back-and-forth with a woman about the future of Social Security, he said "If I lose this election, if I don't do well here, life goes on. But, I'll remember this conversation, because I told you the truth. I didn't pander to you ... well, maybe a little bit."
Photo: Presidential candidate John Kasich talks with some attendees of the Laconia Rotary Club meeting yesterday at the Belknap Mill. Several polls have shown Kasich gathering some momentum in New Hampshire, as he appears to be drawing support from independent voters. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Michael Kitch)