To hear Ohio Gov. John Kasich tell it, the decision to run for president is a question of a higher calling.
“It’s really like, what’s the Lord want me to do?” Kasich told a group of Republicans gathered over a barbecue here Friday.
At events across upstate South Carolina, Kasich harkened back to the sense of duty that compelled him to run for governor of Ohio. He hasn’t yet decided whether he believes it’s his duty to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, though he’s barnstorming the important early voting state, just days after his supporters set to work building an organization that can fund the governor’s political travel and accept unlimited donations.
Meanwhile, Kasich is wrestling with what his message should be—and whether America is interested in hearing it.
He’s not a flamethrower. He doesn’t criticize his fellow Republicans or even the GOP’s favorite punching bag, President Barack Obama. His positions aren’t designed to rile up the GOP base.
When asked if he would attend a same-sex wedding — Kasich is opposed to gay and lesbian nuptials — he said his friend just invited him to one and he and his wife are planning to go.
“I went home and I said to my wife, ‘my friend’s getting married. What do you think? You wanna go?’ She goes, ‘Oh, I’m absolutely going.’ I called him today and said, ‘Hey, just let me know what time it is,’” Kasich said. “My friend knows how I feel about the issue, but I’m not here to have a war with him. I care about my friend, and so it’s pretty simple for me.”
Team Kasich is focusing its early efforts on New Hampshire and South Carolina to determine whether the little-known governor could become a viable alternative to the likes of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I don’t want to do this just to run around,” Kasich said in an interview. “I have to feel that I have a very good chance to win.”
It’s not that the governor lacks a compelling resume. He served in the House of Representatives for nearly two decades and, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, was key to passing the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. He hosted a show on Fox News and worked in investment banking. When he became governor of Ohio, he faced a multimillion-dollar shortfall and turned it into a surplus. He’s got the social conservative credentials, too.
But Kasich still seems unsure of how to tell his story. When a reporter asked him what he has to offer voters if he runs, Kasich seemed at a loss. “I should have you decide that. I don’t think I should decide it,” he said. “I want to be loose. I want to be real.”
Lucky for him, South Carolina is the kind of state that likes its presidential politics up close and personal.
“In South Carolina, people want to know who your momma and daddy are and who your kinfolk are,” said Nic Lane, outgoing chairman of the Spartanburg County GOP. “He’s got to tell his story.”
So that’s what Kasich spent Friday trying to do. He shuddered at the idea of his daughters nearing the legal driving age, talked about his father’s career as a mailman and cobbled together a greatest hits list of legislative and executive accomplishments.
He faces an uphill climb in both name recognition and fundraising. Just 2% of Republicans said he would be their choice for the nominee in a mid-March CNN/ORC poll.
Donna Turner Williams, a commercial real estate broker in South Carolina, said she’s been involved in GOP politics for some 35 years and was eager to see Kasich up close. But she didn’t know much about him. “He probably just has not been on the front of the brain.”
Republicans in The Palmetto State insist the race is still wide open at this early state—and plenty of voters are seeking an alternative to another Bush candidacy.
“Jeb Bush is like you’re anticipating a great dessert, and you finally have dessert and you find out they burnt the cake,” said South Carolina Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a Republican. “You know you’re supposed to like him, but there’s just not much energy there.”
As for Kasich, he’s still weighing whether he thinks he can win and whether his wife and two daughters are up for it.
But he cautioned against underestimating him if he joins the fray.
“You don’t want to play ping pong with me because we’ll be playing until the sun comes up—until I beat you,” Kasich said. “That’s just the way it works with me.”