BELMONT — John Kasich, the next to last of the 17 Republicans to enter the starting gate for the presidential stakes, rode the crest of a swelling wave to the Top of the Town restaurant this week where his conservatism, leavened by dollops of pragmatism and compassion, played well to a packed house hosted by the Belknap County Republican Committee.
Kasich announced his candidacy on July 21, performed well in the Fox News debate, invested heavily in television advertising and came in third — behind Donald Trump and Jeb Bush — in a poll of New Hampshire voters this week. He has quickly shown himself a strong competitor alongside Bush and Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, for the centrist/conservative vote, which since undeclared voters can take either ballot in the New Hampshire Primary could determine its outcome. By the same token, centrist candidates will likely face stiffer challenges in primaries in states with more conservative GOP electorates, particularly in the South.
"Kasich would be a very strong candidate in a general election," said one party insider, "but, the question is whether he can win the nomination."
Kasich, 63, who served nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001 — six of them as chairman of the Budget Committee — and is serving his second term as governor of Ohio, is the most experienced candidate in the field. "I've written 16 budgets," he remarked.
Kasich responded to questions directly, displaying a sure command of the issues. He defended his decision to overcome opposition from fellow Republicans in the Ohio legislature to expand Medicaid, insisting that the program benefited the most vulnerable and least fortunate. Although he authored a health-care proposal based on a mandate requiring individual to purchase insurance, he said that would repeal Obamacare and replace it with plan designed to "to keep people healthy rather than treat them when they're sick." He likened primary care physicians to "shepherds" and would empower them to provide regular examinations and routine care at lower costs, emphasizing "quality not quantity medicine."
Kasich also called for measures to control the cost of Medicaid and reform Social Security by enabling younger employees with the opportunity to invest a share of their contribution to private accounts, which he said would ensure the program remained solvent.
Major changes to the health care system and Social Security, Kasich stressed, must be undertaken by a bipartisan coalition. "You don't want to do it with one party," he said, pointing to the dissension arising from introducing Obamacare without Republican support.
"You eat an elephant one bite at a time," Kasich remarked in addressing the deficit. He recalled his experience as chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 1990s when he worked with Clinton administration to reduce the deficit, balance the budget and generate a surplus.
On immigration, Kasich said his first priority would be "build the wall" and return those who breach it to their country of origin followed by a guest worker program and pathway to "legal status" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the country. "I'm not for calling these people names or shipping them out," he said. When challenged, he replied that mass deportation is "not practical. I'm not for doing it and not changing my position to gain a vote."
Kasich, who has endorsed the national Common Core education standards, said that 40 percent of high school graduates enroll in remedial courses in college and called for more demanding standards while ensuring local control of school curriculum. He said that the cost of higher education can be reduced by identifying and addressing the factors driving increasing costs.
Kasich left Bob Selig of Laconia impressed. "He's very articulate, answers questions directly and is aggressive, but not negative," he said, then added that he has not yet decided who to vote for.
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