John Kasich Enters 2016 Race, Hoping Centrist Appeal Sets Him Apart

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Gov. John R. Kasich, a voluble and blunt-talking maverick who is hoping his upbeat vision for a united America can catapult him to the White House, declared Tuesday that he is running for president, telling a crowd here that he has “the experience and the testing – the testing which shapes you and prepares you for the most important job in the world.”

Mr. Kasich, joined by his wife and 15-year-old twin daughters, addressed several thousand cheering supporters inside the student union building at Ohio State University here, offering a centrist appeal designed to paint him as a common-sense Midwesterner who can fix a broken Washington. He avoided attacking President Obama, as his Republican rivals have done.

The event was a return of sorts: As an 18-year-old Ohio State freshman in 1970, Mr. Kasich wrote President Richard M. Nixon to plead, successfully, to visit the White House. But Mr. Kasich seemed determined to link himself to another Republican president, the conservative hero, Ronald Reagan, whose optimistic oratory he sought to evoke.

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“The sun is rising, and the sun is going to rise to the zenith in America again,” Mr. Kasich said at one point, recounting his advice to citizens of an Ohio community whose economy was devastated by job losses during the recession. He wrapped up his speech with another Reagan-esque declaration: “The light of a city on a hill cannot be hidden. America is that city, and you are that light.”

Mr. Kasich, 63, became the 16th prominent Republican to enter the 2016 field. As a two-term governor in a critical swing state – no candidate since John F. Kennedy in 1960 has won the White House without winning Ohio – he is a credible candidate, though his late entry means he has catch-up work to do. He is also an unconventional one.

His 43-minute, sometimes meandering speech, delivered with notes but no script and no teleprompter, was classic Kasich. It was gritty and at times defiant: “They said it couldn’t be done; we proved them wrong,” he said, recounting naysayers he has met along the way. And it was laden with his faith-inspired, if idiosyncratic, pearls of life wisdom.

” ‘The dog ate my homework’ went out in the fifth grade,” Mr. Kasich said at one point, talking about personal responsibility. Describing a Holocaust memorial on the grounds of the Ohio statehouse, he said: “There’s this line etched in it that says, ‘If you’ve saved one life, you’ve saved the world.’ Do you believe that?” Later, he described himself as “a flawed man trying to honor God’s blessings in my life.”

Mr. Kasich also spoke of “two wonderful African-American fellows” he met at a Wendy’s restaurant who, he said, urged him to run. (Mr. Kasich won a quarter of the black vote when he won re-election in 2014.) He told them that other candidates would have more money. “And they looked at me,” he said, “and said, ‘But you’ve got statistics.’ “

In ignoring Mr. Obama, the governor may have missed an opportunity to gin up enthusiasm on the Republican right – a constituency that is already suspicious of him because of some of his moderate policy positions, including his expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“This is about the future and bringing people together,” John Weaver, Mr. Kasich’s chief strategist, said after the speech, when asked about the omission. “Barack Obama is not on the ballot.”

The son of a postman from working-class McKees Rocks, Pa., Mr. Kasich won his first election, to the Ohio Senate, when he was 24. At 30, in 1982, he won a seat in Congress, becoming the only nonincumbent Republican that year to defeat an incumbent Democrat.

He went on to lead the House Budget Committee and led a successful effort to balance the federal budget when Bill Clinton was president – an achievement he is seeking to spotlight in his campaign. He is also highlighting his national security credentials (he spent 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee) and what he calls his “Ohio story,” of jobs and economic recovery as governor, boasting of the $2 billion surplus his state has amassed on his watch.

“We are going to take the lessons of the heartland,” he said here Tuesday, “and straighten out Washington, D.C.”

But first, voters must figure out who Mr. Kasich is. The governor is not nearly as well known as other candidates; polls show about 2 percent of Republicans back him. A critical early test for Mr. Kasich, analysts say, will be whether he can raise those numbers enough to land a spot in the Aug. 6 Republican debate in Cleveland, in his own backyard. But it may be too late; only the top 10 candidates in polling will make the cut.

“The first debate, to me, is the first primary,” said Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. He views Mr. Kasich – along with Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin; Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida – as the candidates who “have a real legitimate shot at winning the nomination.”

But, Mr. Dowd said, “he needs to get on that stage.”

Kasich aides say they are not nearly as concerned with the debate as they are with the actual first primary in February, in New Hampshire, where independent-minded Republicans – like the Ohio governor and Senator John McCain of Arizona, some of whose former advisers, including Mr. Weaver, now work for Mr. Kasich – have traditionally fared well.

Leading the Kasich effort in New Hampshire is John E. Sununu, the former senator, who warmed up the crowd on Tuesday by reminding it of Mr. Kasich’s work in Washington.

“He helped us achieve things that we honestly did not think we had in us,” Mr. Sununu said.

After his speech, Mr. Kasich headed to New Hampshire for several days of town-hall-style meetings. (He will also make stops later in the week in South Carolina, Iowa and Michigan.)

The political action committee supporting his election, New Day for America, has already spent more than $2 million on television advertising in the Boston market, which reaches into New Hampshire, where a new ad began running on Tuesday.

Like Mr. McCain, Mr. Kasich is brusque and often combative – even his own aides describe him, euphemistically, as “impatient” – and questions about his temperament have dogged him throughout his career. (“Is John Kasich too big a jerk to be president?” a Cleveland newspaper columnist asked this month.)

But here in Columbus, supporters see Mr. Kasich’s bluntness as an asset.

“He’s sort of ornery,” said John Novotny, a dentist, waiting in line to hear the governor speak. “He says what he feels, and I kind of like that. It’s like he’s not kowtowing to everybody. I hope he stays that way.”

Correction: July 21, 2015