Compassionate Conservatism Roars Back: John Kasich Surprises In New Hampshire

Will it matter going forward?

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Compassionate conservatism is back.

Running on a message of civility, empathy and moral purpose in a race dominated by fear and race-baiting, Ohio Gov. John Kasich surged to a second-place finish Tuesday night in New Hampshire, becoming the latest in a long line of long-shot presidential candidates to use the Granite State’s famously unpredictable and independent-minded electorate to stake out a place in the primary contest.

Kasich’s strong finish -- combined with the collapse of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- once again upends the media narrative that came out of Iowa and complicates a race that refuses to become any simpler as the pages of the calendar turn.

No candidate spent more time in New Hampshire leading up to the primary than Kasich, who held over 100 town hall meetings and made himself especially accessible to voters and journalists alike.

His freewheeling and conversational style made him a strong fit for the famously discerning electorate here, and his second-place showing validates -- in part, at least -- the theory that there is no replacement for retail campaigning in New Hampshire, unless you happen to be a billionaire celebrity candidate in the vein of Trump. And despite his harsh record on reproductive freedom and controversial attempts to restrict the bargaining rights of public workers in Ohio -- efforts that the state's voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2011 -- Kasich has staked out a position as a relative moderate in an extremely conservative GOP field.

In a brief interview with The Huffington Post on Monday, Kasich projected the calm demeanor of a candidate comfortable in his own skin and sanguine about his chances, offering a "take it or leave it" approach to campaigning that ultimately served him well.

"When you cut through with a positive message, I’d love to think it’ll pay off," he said. "And I guess the reason I’m relaxed is I know what this ground game’s all about. And look, I feel good about everything. It’s been a great experience. I have no regrets. None."

Kasich will face a much steeper test in remaining viable in South Carolina and other states where he has registered in the low single digits in polling and has a far weaker campaign infrastructure than the one he enjoyed in New Hampshire.

His strategists hope that the Republican race will remain muddied over the next couple of weeks, with no candidate emerging as the clear favorite to challenge Trump’s frontrunner status. That would give the Midwestern Kasich space to capture a trove of delegates in the March 8 Michigan primary and the March 15 winner-take-all contest in his home state of Ohio.

Conventional wisdom insisted that Kasich had written off his chances at the Republican nomination the minute he agreed to accept federal money to expand Medicaid in Ohio, and he buried them further when he put the decision in moral terms.

Talking to reporters as the Ohio legislature debated whether to go along with his expansion in 2013, he made an argument for compassion. “The most important thing for this legislature to think about: Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes," he said. "Put yourself in the shoes of a mother and a father of an adult child that is struggling. Walk in somebody else’s moccasins. Understand that poverty is real."

“I had a conversation with one of the members of the legislature the other day. I said, ‘I respect the fact that you believe in small government. I do, too. I also know that you’re a person of faith,'" Kasich said. "'Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.’ ”

Kasich, who was raised Catholic and attends an Anglican church, often frames his policy decisions as moral imperatives. More than once he has suggested that he only takes political positions that he feels he could defend before the Almighty.

His views on dealing with undocumented immigrants, while nowhere near the Democratic platform, are also gentler. On immigration, Kasich insists that it's not just impractical to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, but also undesirable. "I think that a lot of these people who are here are some of the hardest-working, God-fearing, family-oriented people you can ever meet," Kasich told a New Hampshire audience last August.

That Kasich could maintain these positions and still run a viable presidential campaign is a major shift from the last Republican primary. In 2012, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that conservatives who refused to allow the children of undocumented immigrants go to school had "no heart," he was effectively driven out of the race.

Kasich offers a stark contrast to the alternatives presented by reality TV star Donald Trump, who bested Kasich in New Hampshire, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Both, in their own ways, are running their campaigns on fear and anger.

Kasich, challenged on Fox News last summer for moralizing the role of government, would not back down. "My sense is that it is important that we do not ignore the poor, the widowed, the disabled," he said. "I just think that's the way America is. And I think there's a moral aspect to it. In my state, there's not only a moral aspect where some people's lives have been saved because of what we've done, but it also saves us money in the long run."

In another interview, Kasich positively referenced a New Deal government program that put people to work during the Great Depression, and called out his conservative critics for hypocrisy. "I'm concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you're poor, somehow you're shiftless and lazy. You know what?" he told The New York Times. "The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the W.P.A."

This is not new stuff for Kasich. Back in the '90s, after the Gingrich Revolution gave Republicans control of the House, he became chairman of the Budget Committee and was an early advocate of what became known as "compassionate conservatism." "We are a society founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic that says you are judged on the basis of what you do to the least of them," he said in a 1996 interview with Arianna Huffington, nine years before she founded HuffPost, in which she called on Bob Dole to name Kasich as his running mate.

But both major parties have changed quite a bit in the last two decades, and Kasich has acquired new liabilities -- including more than half a decade as a managing director at the now-defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers that Democrats are eager to exploit. Can a man who seemed like a plausible Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1996 win a spot at the top of the ticket in the age of Trump and Cruz? We can hope.

Scott Conroy contributed reporting.

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