Kasich says he’s a conservative despite moderate positions

Updated 8:58 PM EDT, Wed August 12, 2015
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Story highlights

"To me, conservatism is giving everybody a chance to be able to be successful," Kasich said

Kasich has jumped to a strong third-place standing in New Hampshire since last week's debate

(CNN) —  

Ohio Gov. John Kasich supports key exceptions for abortion, is open to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and says he will make sure he protects the social safety net.

And he says he’s still a conservative.

CNN Interactive: 2016 election candidates

He explained it this way to CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday during a break from the campaign trail in New Hampshire:

“I’ve balanced more budgets than about anybody walking on the face of the earth – I mean, I’m just kinda kidding, but I’ve done that. I’ve cut taxes in every step of the way – the largest tax cuts in Ohio of any sitting governor right now. I’m for school choice. We’re getting at the problem of higher education costs. And somehow because I care about people or I care about the environment, that makes me something other than a conservative?”

He then recounted how one attendee at one of his town halls whispered to him “thanks for caring about people” as he walked out.

“I think Republicans allow themselves to be put in a box,” he said. “She’s like whispering like that’s bad to say. No. To me, conservatism is giving everybody a chance to be able to be successful. That’s the way Reagan was.”

It’s a similar pitch he’s made since entering the race last month with an empathetic and sometimes emotional announcement speech at Ohio State University. And it’s reflective of one of his best-received answers at last week’s Republican debate, when he said he would always love a hypothetical gay daughter.

But, following that debate performance, Kasich and his stances are getting a lot more attention.

In a winding answer to his position on immigration Wednesday, Kasich explained that he wants to complete a fence along the southern border and generally crack down on illegal immigration. But he would not slam the door on a potential pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

“I don’t favor citizenship because, as I teach my kids, you don’t jump the line to get into a Taylor Swift concert,” Kasich told CNN.

But, he added: “I’m just not going to pound the table on these things and say my way or the highway,” he said. “I mean, I will on some things, but I better be careful about that. Because you know what – I actually think about what it would be like to be president.”

He did, however, flatly slam the door on his previous support for ending birthright citizenship – a proposal he now says is too divisive.

Asked about abortion, he said he favors three exceptions – in the case of the mother’s life being at risk, rape or incest – a position which used to be standard among some of the most conservative Republicans but which has been ditched by many of his opponents, including, notably, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

The two-term governor and former House Budget Committee chairman has already taken heat for expanding Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. He says, however, that he would repeal Obamacare if given the chance.

Kasich has catapulted to prominence in the New Hampshire race in the past few days due in large part to good timing. He announced his campaign later than most other GOP candidates and successfully rode the subsequent bump in the polls to a coveted spot onstage at the main Republican debate in Cleveland.

Once there, he played well to his hometown audience – winning multiple applause lines inside the arena – and won some plaudits from the pundits afterward. He even thanked Donald Trump this week for drawing 24 million viewers to catch his own performance.

Since then, he has jumped to a strong third-place standing in New Hampshire. And now the two-term Ohio governor is sticking close to the nice guy image he¹s established in the wide-open field of Republicans.

Now it’s up to Republican voters to decide if he’s conservative enough.