HENNIKER, N.H. — It was one of the last questions at a town hall meeting, and it happened to come from a recent retiree from Ohio: How had Governor John Kasich’s time as that state’s chief executive prepared him to be president?
“Early in your administration, my colleagues in the public and private sector, kind of viewed you as rather intense and kind of dictatorial,” Jeff Weber said inside of New England College’s Simon Center. “They said you’ve mellowed some.”
“How has the job changed me?” asked the governor who is beginning to break through in a Republican primary field packed with 17 candidates, the most noted of whom is businessman and reality TV showman Donald Trump. “Number one, my faith has gotten deeper. Why does that matter? Because it’s given me perspective.”
There were religious overtones to many of Kasich’s remarks on everything from climate change to the national debt Wednesday morning as he wrapped up a five-event, two-day swing through a state that usually doesn’t embrace overtly religious candidates. Yet the Ohio Republican is appealing to voters in New Hampshire with its first-in-the-nation primary.
Kasich is surging in the state, where recent polls show him to be more popular among voters who consider themselves moderate or somewhat conservative, and he drew a mix of Republican, Democratic, and independent voters Wednesday. He was quick to remind voters that he was able to build consensus in Ohio, a critical swing state, winning 86 of 88 counties and capturing women and African-American voters during his last election.
Early Wednesday morning, an overflow crowd packed Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett. State Senator David Boutin endorsed Kasich while wearing a red hat emblazoned with Ohio State University’s logo. Boutin, a Republican, said it was the largest crowd he’d seen crammed into the historic building this election cycle.
Kasich started his stump speech at the store not by talking about the challenges the country faces and offering his solutions or even by giving the crowd a bit of his biography. Instead, he urged those in attendance to “count our blessings.”
“We have so much to be thankful for,” he said. “While we get frustrated, let us count our blessings as Americans. While we complain and while we get depressed, let us also thank the good Lord.”
In the audience was Patty Sawyer, an 82-year-old resident who said she was still searching for a candidate to support in 2016. Kasich is one of three she is considering.
“My problem is: Where is the middle? I hope there can be some communication and some — I don’t know what to call it. Compromise. That’s a good word — between the two parties or we will never go anywhere,” she said afterward. “It sounded like he could bring some together who are of diverse opinions.”
Kasich was jovial, upbeat, and quick-witted as he responded to questions about health care, immigration, entitlement programs, and climate change.
“We were created to be stewards of God’s creation, and God’s creation is the environment. So we have to take care of it. We can’t be abusive to it, but we can’t worship it,” he said in response to a question about climate change. “It does exist, but we have to be careful to how we react to it.”
There must be a mix of renewable and traditional energy sources, he said. “Coal? Dig it. Clean it. Burn it. Natural gas? Use it. Nuclear? Build it. Solar, wind, geothermal? Absolutely. The total mix,” he said.
At New England College, Kasich said “there’s a moral purpose behind balancing the budget,” in response to question about eliminating the national debt. He also offered practical solutions, pulling from his time as governor in Ohio, where, he said, the state was $8 billion in the hole when he took office and now has a $2 billion surplus.
“You can’t play favorites,” he said. “You have to do the thing that is going to be the most effective in terms of innovating, shrinking, and fixing, and making government work better.”
And while some people walked away from Wednesday’s events pleased by what they heard — Weber, for example, said he liked Kasich’s response to his question about how the governor’s office prepared him to work with people of differing views — the New Hampshire and Ohio Democratic parties both issued statements critical of the governor.
“His record is just as conservative as the rest of the candidates in the GOP clown car,” said the statement from Lizzy Price, communications director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
And David Pepper, Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman, said, “Kasich’s record here in Ohio is one of a stalled economic recovery and a for-profit charter school disaster. Maybe he should hold a town hall in Ohio for a change, rather than 700 miles away.”