For John Kasich, it was about the journey

Story highlights

  • John Kasich became known for his town halls
  • His only victory came in his home state of Ohio

Columbus, Ohio (CNN)"They were absolutely magic," John Kasich said Wednesday, as he announced that he was dropping out of the presidential race.

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He was talking about the more than 200 town halls he'd held -- from the small towns of New Hampshire to New York and San Francisco.
    These unpredictable events included questions from 10-year-olds about how to defeat ISIS and a woman telling Kasich five members of her family had committed suicide. They drew responses that thrust Kasich into the spotlight.
    But the Ohio governor also remained a sideshow in a Republican election dominated by Donald Trump's attacks on his rivals and promises to fix all that ailed the American people.
    Kasich, in contrast to Trump's mega-rallies, would often go quiet as he looked around at the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people gathered to hear him. He said the town halls had taught him why it was important to "slow down our lives and listen to those who are around us."
    Kasich's was a campaign that often seemed more about the journey than the destination.
    I have covered Kasich since June of 2015, back when I --- and presumably many GOP voters -- didn't know how to pronounce his name (it's "Kay-sick. It rhymes with basic"). I watched as voters poured out emotional stories to him, and saw the energy he gets from countless town halls as I followed him across 19 states.
    Here's what I saw:

    'A victory every single day'

    Wednesday morning, Kasich sat in a plane on a runway in Columbus, and looked ahead to a schedule filled with fundraisers, local media hits and calls to delegates -- public campaign events were few and far between. That was a far cry from the town halls, and more recently, retail stops that had basically turned into food tours of the country, that had seemed to drive his candidacy.
    Although Kasich would often open town halls with the same stump speech reporters had heard many times before, Kasich prided himself on being "off the cuff."
    For aides, Kasich's insistence on leaving the script behind could be nerve-wracking, but for the reporters following him, the events promised the unexpected.
    That meant tangents about urging citizens to take widows and seniors out to dinner, his love for Justin Bieber, and calling on voters to tell any kids they ran across not to do drugs.
    This could also backfire and provide fodder for rival campaigns, as when Kasich was talking about an early statehouse race in the 1970s and said women "who left their kitchens" came out to support him. Clinton, for instance, responded by tweeting, "It's 2016. A woman's place is ... wherever she wants it to be."
    Kasich later apologized and said it had been taken out of context.
    But for the most part, Kasich was just as likely to give a voter a hug as he was to ask for someone's vote. When one young man shared his personal struggles at a town hall in Clemson, South Carolina, Kasich's emotional response, and the hug they shared, went viral.
    From then on, voters at Kasich's events would often tell CNN they'd heard about the story and hoped to get a hug as well.

    Kasich-fetti after a big win in Ohio

    A video posted by Cassie Spodak (@clspo) on

    It was a transformation for those who had known him as a prickly politician who once promised political opponents back home: "If you're not on the bus, we'll run over you with the bus."
    Just a week before dropping out he'd stood in a room in Portland, Oregon, and explained why he was staying in, why his campaign wasn't just about winning.
    "What if in the course of this I can change a life? I can affect a life? If I can be a voice that's different than what we hear in the political circles today, I will have had a victory because I have a victory every single day," Kasich said.

    'The light overcame the darkness'

    That's not to say Kasich's campaign didn't take the politics seriously.
    His kindler, gentler message was an obvious contrast to the non-stop sparring between other candidates like Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
    "Tonight the light overcame the darkness," Kasich told a room of cheering supporters on February 9 in Concord, New Hampshire, after a second-place finish in the first-in-the-nation primary.
    Kasich's idiosyncratic town halls coupled his awkward-dad sense of humor with an insistence that fixing America's problems rests with voters understanding they were born "special" and could aspire to be a part of something "bigger than themselves."
    In a speech entitled "Two Paths," Kasich laid out the dangers for America under the leadership of Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But after that, Kasich refused to focus on either candidate and stuck to his course, often bringing crowds to their feet when he said he wouldn't "take the low road to the highest office in the land."
    The two-term governor, who had been in Congress for 18 years, was also fond of saying the Republican party was his "vehicle, not my master" -- a signal he didn't feel beholden to GOP orthodoxy.
    Aides admit they thought a bad finish in New Hampshire would be the likely end of the campaign. But even after the Granite State showing vaulted Kasich into South Carolina, a string of disappointing election results awaited him.
    Kasich's reluctance at times to jump into the fray with his rivals often left him out of the national conversation.
    "We're down to three and I'm not contrasting myself, I'm speaking out at times," Kasich told reporters in early April after a town hall in Hempstead, New York.
    Kasich would often rail against the lack of press coverage he received, but he also illustrated a willful ignorance of the news cycle while campaigning. His limited news diet often frustrated aides, much of it consisted of reading newspaper articles on his iPad, watching "60 Minutes" segments and the Golf Channel.
    When a Twitter fight between Trump and Cruz about their wives took over a news cycle, Kasich said, "I don't read tweets." And asked about a much-criticized interview Trump did with the New York Times on foreign policy, Kasich said he "never read" it.
    After violence broke out at a canceled Trump rally in Chicago, Kasich held a press conference where he denounced the "toxic environment' Trump had created.
    Kasich later asked one of his press aides to draft a list of the comments Trump had made about violence at his rallies, including his call to punch protesters in the face.
    Kasich told CNN he'd been unaware of the comments up until then and hadn't been paying attention when statements had been read aloud on stage days earlier by CNN's Jake Tapper at a GOP debate.
    On the day of the Ohio primary -- his lone victory this year came after intense campaigning in his home state -- Kasich reflected on his daughters' hearing what Trump had said about women and promised that in the future he would be pointing out things he had seen "that are deeply disturbing in this process."
    But the day after he won the Ohio, Kasich didn't mention Trump.

    'The Lord may have another purpose for me'

    Like other candidates and experts, Kasich continued to seem puzzled by Trump's dominance. At his last public event in San Jose, California, Saturday he blasted Trump's foreign policy ideas and questioned why voters weren't tired of him.
    "At some point you would think people would be tired, I'm not interested in anything he has to say, it's the same old blabber," Kasich said.
    Some weeks it seemed like Kasich was more likely to contribute to the news cycle by eating pizza with a fork in New York than by anything having to do with his opponents.
    His epic tasting session of what seemed like an entire deli in the Bronx, while a crush of photographers watched, meant that viewers all over the country were treated to images of Kasich stuffing his face with hoagies and spaghetti.
    His only mention of Trump, while major TV outlets fought for a shot of him, was a joke about a Pink Floyd song "The Wall."
    Trump, meanwhile, took to mocking Kasich's eating habits.
    "This guy's shoving pancakes ... and it's pouring out of his mouth. That's not presidential, I can tell you," Trump said at a late April rally in Pennsylvania.
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    Kasich also enjoyed a complicated relationship with the press, often laughing at questions he didn't want to answer and dismissing others.
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    By early March, even before his Ohio victory, the Kasich campaign abandoned the idea of winning the nomination outright and was relying on delegates turning his way at an open convention after Trump hypothetically failed to clinch the nomination on the first ballot.
    And other GOP candidates and leaders constantly called on him to leave the race. Cruz, especially, was frustrated as the senator sought a one-on-one matchup with Trump. The two eventually reached a deal where Kasich left Indiana to Cruz and Cruz would leave New Mexico and Oregon to Kasich. But it was too late for Cruz, who dropped out Tuesday night after Trump won the Hoosier State.
    Cruz's campaign manager, Jeff Roe, went to Twitter on Friday to lay the blame squarely on Kasich.
    "Post mortem's on POTUS race must include a healthy dose of Kasich. Defeating Trump required a head to head. Kasich kept that from happening."
    Kasich adviser John Weaver responded: "Other losing campaigns, especially with candidates nearing record level negative ratings & zero ability to grow, should look inward. #exuses"
    But even starting back in March, Kasich continually told reporters he wouldn't talk "process," even though the unusual process was the only way he would actually be able to win the nomination.
    When asked on April 13 in Savage, Maryland, if this "process" formed the basis of his path to the presidency, Kasich said: "No. My path to the presidency is to keep telling people what my message is."
    However, his interactions with the press also displayed a rare quality on the campaign trail: that he was human. After snapping at this reporter at a press conference in March, for instance, Kasich personally apologized and made a point of answering any questions at future events.
    Kasich often grew reflective on the trail around trips back to Ohio, talking about missing family dinners and how his daughters greeted him when he came home.
    After a CNN town hall with his family in April, Kasich said, "Any doubt I had -- my wife and daughters pushed me over the Rubicon and now maybe people will begin to make a decision to be for me."
    Kasich grew restless at events before his weekly flights back to Columbus, like he did at one campaign stop at PJ Bernstein's Deli in Manhattan in mid-April.
    It was the type of event that typified Kasich's interactions with the press that covered him.
    He demonstrated proper "pickle eating" etiquette, questioned what one reporter was writing down, at one point turned a reporter's recorder back on its owner, and turned away a famed pastrami sandwich while also ordering apple strudel (cut into three pieces for sharing).
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    As a crush of reporters gathered around him at the deli, Kasich asked one of the traveling TV reporters what he would do after Kasich was gone. It wasn't until Kasich asked if the reporter lived in the city that the press around him, including this reporter, realized he was referencing his return to Ohio that night, not dropping out of the race. This was not unwarranted. By the time Kasich announced he was exiting the race, the reporters covering him had heard Kasich question the purpose of his candidacy several times.
    As he ended his campaign Wednesday, Kasich said, "Throughout my campaign I have said the Lord may have another purpose for me and it set all the pundits a-twitter. 'Does that mean he is not committed or he is not focused or he is not energetic?' It showed to some degree how little they understand about life. You see, I have always said that."