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SCOT LEHIGH

Ohio Governor John Kasich’s positive politics, even with Hillary Clinton

Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich declined an opportunity to make negative comments about Hillary Clinton during a presidential pitch in New Hampshire.
Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich declined an opportunity to make negative comments about Hillary Clinton during a presidential pitch in New Hampshire.(REUTERS)

CONCORD, N.H.

Halfway through John Kasich’s testing-the-presidential-primary-waters pitch at a local restaurant on Wednesday, something odd struck me: Ohio’s Republican governor hadn’t engaged in Obama-trashing or Clinton-bashing.

Indeed, he declined even when an audience member asked for “two or three of the best reasons you can give us as to why Hillary should not be president of the United States.”

“I’m not getting into Hillary today,” Kasich replied. He answered another question, then circled back. “If I’m talking about what I don’t like about Hillary, then I’m not telling you what I think. And I think you need to know more about who I am, and what I think, than what I think negative about somebody else.”

That response won Kasich a round of applause, prompting him to note that at the New Hampshire GOP’s presidential-candidate cattle call last month, he had stuck to a positive message while most other candidates had ripped into Obama and Clinton.

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“If I’ve gotta spend my time trashing people to be successful in this, you can count me out,” said the man who hasn’t yet counted himself in, but sounds increasingly like a candidate. He then launched into a story about raising turnpike tolls in Ohio to back bonds for infrastructure improvements.

A while later, I ran into the please-pillory-Hillary questioner on Main Street, and asked what he had thought of Kasich’s answer. He was (sometime) ski mogul Les Otten, a former Republican candidate for governor in Maine, who says he may well be a New Hampshire resident by primary time. Otten claimed Kasich’s reply was just what he wanted.

“I think people in the north country of New England are pretty tired of politics as usual, and will be looking for a candidate that speaks plainly and just talks about the issues,” he said.

Otten may be onto something there. I also expect New Hampshire Republican primary voters will end up favoring a results-oriented conservative pragmatist over the right-wing to-the-barricade ideologues. Further, as Granite State GOP graybeard Tom Rath observes, if the Democratic primary looks like a Clinton cakewalk, independents may decide to take GOP ballots — and that group in particular could find Kasich politically attractive.

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A pragmatic rather than a doctrinaire conservative, Kasich, 62, hasn’t retooled his stands to pass right-wing litmus tests, at least not so far. He supports Common Core, for example, citing the need for better educational standards. He expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, though he wants to repeal the rest of Obamacare and let the states craft health-coverage solutions. Kasich has said he thinks climate change is a problem, but hasn’t displayed any urgency about addressing it. Fiscally, Kasich, whose resume includes nine terms in the House, has been a tax cutter and budget balancer, but also someone who thinks government should help the poor, a belief rooted in his strong religious values.

In Concord, I asked him if he was trying to reclaim the party from its hard-right ideologues.

Kasich said no, but then added: “I would hope that people will see what worked in Ohio for a conservative Republican who was able to win the state with a big margin, and I hope leading by example will help them to kind of rethink maybe where they are.”

As a smart, accomplished swing-state governor, Kasich belongs in the lightly populated category of Republican hopefuls one could actually imagine as president.

And in New Hampshire, that’s a very good place to be.

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Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.

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