SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- The man who asked the first question of the evening at John Kasich’s town hall meeting here on Monday was wearing sunglasses, and the candidate just couldn’t resist.
“I wear my sunglasses at night!” Kasich said, as a staffer handed the man a microphone.
The Ohio governor waited for the laughter in the audience to die down.
“No, that’s just a song," he added.
Kasich likes to punctuate campaign events with his characteristic brand of oddball levity. It's a good way to break up his heavy monologues about life and loss, as well as the frequent bouts of wisdom-dispensing that define his interactions with voters.
"You have to find out what your gifts are, and then you have to use them to heal the world," he instructed the man moments after poking fun at his sunglasses.
If your current perception of the race for the Republican presidential nomination consists solely of the nasty and combustible standoff between Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, you’ve been missing a weird and wonderful component in the form of Kasich.
You have to find out what your gifts are, and then you have to use them to heal the world. John Kasich
The sense that his run for the White House amounts to little more than an endearing sideshow is, however, often bolstered by his events. The acoustics inside the Schenectady Armory, for instance, weren’t great. They were terrible, in fact, as a dull echo made it difficult to hear what the candidate was saying.
The crowd of a few hundred people who turned out to see Kasich the day before he finished second in the New York GOP primary might have been impressive by the standards of a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last August. But just a day after Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign said he drew nearly 30,000 people to a rally in Brooklyn, Kasich’s gathering felt less like a rock concert and more like a retreat for likeminded souls, featuring the candidate as motivational speaker and life coach extraordinaire.
Kasich’s unique version of everyman shtick typically begins with his own rags-to-riches story of growing up the son of a mailman and the grandson of a coal miner who died of black lung disease. But more than any other candidate remaining in the race, Kasich thrives on the give-and-take with voters. It was only five or six minutes into his abbreviated stump speech in Schenectady that he took the first question from the man who wears his sunglasses at night.
“What can you do as president to help inspire the people to live a good life, so they can all be successful?” the man asked.
Kasich began his answer to that open-ended question with an even more open-ended question of his own.
“Who do you think that depends on?” he asked. “Does that depend on a president?”
Then, after a little more back-and-forth, the candidate tied it all in with the feel-good mantra that has been his unlikely ticket to mild success in a GOP race in which the loudest, angriest voices have otherwise prevailed.
"I believe that everyone is made special, OK? Everybody,” he said. “I don't know if you believe this or know this, but there's never been anybody like you before. And there will never be anyone like you again. You're made special."
The "Barney & Friends" theme song, you may be surprised to hear, did not start playing from the public address speaker next. This is just the way Kasich talks to people on a regular basis.
People feel comfortable, for whatever reason, talking to him about their deepest secrets or most significant concerns about their personal lives or the country. John Weaver, Kasich's top strategist
It's a presidential campaign in which the candidate doles out self-improvement advice at least as often as he does policy prescriptions and lays his emotions bare wherever he goes, all the while holding out hope that he can win an unlikely, multi-ballot victory at the Republican National Convention in just three months.
To say that pulling off the feat would be the equivalent of hitting an inside straight would be an understatement. But Kasich appears to be drinking in every moment of the experience of running for president.
His style of campaigning is an emotional rollercoaster ride of public bear hugs, flashes of temper and — perhaps most prominently — lectures on faith, humanity, the mystery of life, and how to live it. John Weaver, Kasich’s top strategist, calls it “conservative reform with a dose of Dr. Phil.”
“It’s certainly evolved that way, and people feel comfortable, for whatever reason, talking to him about their deepest secrets or most significant concerns about their personal lives or the country,” Weaver said. “And he has an incredible ability to connect with people and be empathetic and help nurture people at these events."
While human empathy has become the centerpiece of the long-shot candidate’s message, make no mistake that Kasich is still playing to win. This is a race that has defied predictions at every turn, and as they stare down the prospect of an open convention, Team Kasich sees no reason to give up now.
Even as the #NeverTrump movement has tended to coalesce around the idea that Cruz represents the last best chance to keep Trump from winning the GOP nomination, Kasich’s supporters aren’t ready to throw in the towel either.
When asked if she could envision herself eventually backing Cruz for the greater good of stopping Trump, Arlyn Shultis, a Kasich backer from nearby Ballston Spa, breathed out an aghast murmur that seemed intended to convey near-horror.
“That’s game theory, as opposed to who you think is best,” said her husband, Kenton Shultis. “[The Republican Party] is a private organization, and it can pick candidates however it wants to. And if it wants to succeed, fine, and if it wants to fail, that’s not so smart.”
The argument that he is the only Republican remaining in the race who can win in November has become the central aspect of Kasich’s case -- and the one that his campaign is pushing forcefully, as it continues to seek out minimal opportunities to add to his modest delegate total.
"The reasons I beat Hillary [Clinton] is because my appeal is broad and not narrow,” Kasich said during a relatively rare deviation from his discourse on topics such as self-worth and purpose at the Schenectady Armory. “My appeal is I can get blue-collar workers, and I can get independents."
Kasich will be in Hollywood, Florida, later this week as the Republican National Committee holds its annual spring meeting. He plans to hobnob there with convention delegates, in addition to making his case more thoroughly during a speech at a private reception for the RNC.
His entire senior-level campaign team also plans to convene in south Florida to chew over his strategy, which relies on the far-from-certain assumptions that Trump will fail to win the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination on the first ballot and that Cruz won’t become the immediate de facto choice if the front-runner does fall short.
The Kasich campaign’s hopes rest on the premise that a first-round defeat knocks out Trump entirely and then Kasich steadily gains delegates on the second and third ballots in what will become a two-person race against Cruz. And then — most likely on that third or fourth ballot, their thinking goes -- sanity wins the day, and the delegates settle on the one man who has a realistic shot at winning the general election.
In the meantime, the name of the game is picking up as many delegates as possible through June.
To Trump’s chagrin, Cruz’s campaign has widely been credited for its ability to master the complex delegate selection process in various states. But there are recent signs that the Kasich campaign is holding its own in that regard, though within far more limited parameters.
Kasich’s campaign boasts that it has secured the support of a majority of Indiana’s 57 delegates, in the event that the convention goes to a second ballot and they are relieved from their first-ballot obligations to the winner of the state’s primary. His team also believes that Kasich will do reasonably well in adding to his tally in the five Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states that vote next Tuesday.
Still, the electability-in-November argument, rather than committed delegates, remains Team Kasich’s strategic lynchpin.
“It’s demonstrably proven that John Kasich can win in a landslide and the other two would lose in a landslide, costing us at least one Supreme Court justice and probably the U.S. Senate, and that’s a compelling argument for people whose job is to put together a winning ticket,” Weaver said. “We have our own internal [delegate] count, and it’s significantly larger than what’s publicly discussed, and that’s because we’re picking up people who say that once they get past their legal obligation on the first ballot, they’re with us.”
If we live life bigger than ourselves, and we eventually come to what I think the Lord wants us to do, and if we happen to be gone five minutes from now, well, it's gonna be like, you ran the race. John Kasich
Even granting that assumption, however, Kasich faces long odds. He has won only his home state of Ohio thus far and will be hard-pressed to make the case why a candidate who has failed so often in the primaries and currently holds fewer delegates than Sen. Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the race over a month ago, should rightfully be handed the nomination in Cleveland.
To keep his already dim hopes from burning out, the RNC would first have to revoke a rule, passed during the 2012 convention, that stipulates only candidates who have won the majority of delegates in at least eight states or territories can be nominated.
And then there is the problem of lack of media attention. It’s a reality that reflects Kasich's dearth of primary season victories and perpetuates the idea that he is not a real contender — a perception that could prove toxic to delegates' thinking on second and third ballots.
“Our campaign is not a movement, and we can’t get 20 or 30,000 people to a rally because we’re not famous and we don’t have a self-perpetuating energy clause,” said one senior-level Kasich adviser. “Most of the people who come out [for] those self-help sessions tend to come out because they actually want to hear John Kasich.”
None of this seems to concern Kasich much, as he continues to campaign on a shoestring budget and his own terms, with only a small pack of embedded national network reporters documenting his moves and local news coverage often just as lacking.
And if, as just about everyone expects, he doesn’t come out on top in the end, Kasich declares that he'll be happy to return to what he often refers to as “the second best job in America” with his head held high.
"If we live life bigger than ourselves, and we eventually come to what I think the Lord wants us to do, and if we happen to be gone five minutes from now, well, it's gonna be like, you ran the race,” he said in Schenectady. “And a lot of it isn't how you run the race, it's how you finish the race."
This article was updated to reflect that Kasich finished second in New York's GOP primary.