Kasich looked at ease throughout the night, at one point even deftly parrying a Donald Trump barb with a request for a campaign donation. And, in the post-debate spin, he was practically glowing.
"I had a great time, maybe a little bit of home-court advantage," Kasich said afterward. "You gotta have a little fun in this business, and if everything's going to be a trip to getting a root canal, what's the point?"
Kasich stuck fast to his message of compassionate conservatism, and he won some of the biggest applause when fielding a question on same-sex marriage.
"The court has ruled, and I said we'll accept it. And guess what, I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn't think the way I do, doesn't mean that I can't care about them or can't love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them. Because you know what? That's what we're taught when we have strong faith," Kasich said to some of the strongest applause of the night.
It was a sharp contrast for a guy who just a few weeks ago was facing questions of whether he would even be on stage as he struggled to break out of the back of the Republican pack.
And, on stage with Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul, Kasich stood out even more.
One of the best parries of a Trump blast of the night came from Kasich after Trump intimated he could simply buy politicians, even those on stage.
"If I ask them, if I need them, you know, most of the people on this stage I've given to, just so you understand, a lot of money," Trump said.
One by one, his opponents said they had never taken Trump money. But then Kasich jumped in.
"You're welcome to give to me, Donald, if you'd like," he said.
Kasich then followed with a tweet at Trump and a link to his donation page.
The two-term Ohio governor has often been known as much for his prickly demeanor and bluntness as much as his experience. But the new candidate Kasich, who was unveiled on July 21, stuck hard to his empathetic message. He told the story of his mailman father, playing up his middle-class roots, and he won some of the night's biggest applause ticking off his list of accomplishments as governor.
Kasich had been viewed as a dark-horse candidate running in the centrist, establishment lane with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But Kasich has crept up in the polls in New Hampshire -- where his supporters have poured in more than $2 million in advertising -- and the outside group supporting him pulled in a respectable haul at the end of the last quarter.