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Kasich's candor and humor has occasionally caused problems on the trail

Kasich's "no filtered" approach makes him seem entirely human

CNN —  

John Kasich is his own man. It’s a point of pride for the Ohio governor – and one he touts often on the campaign trail. But it’s also something that can create a problem when he’s tasked with staying on message. Or delivering a specific message at all.

Kasich’s town halls – the backbone of his candidacy and the driving force behind his success in New Hampshire – ebb and flow, with mixes of comedy, compassion and occasional cantankerousness. He holds impromptu news conferences while he’s eating and he tends to cut scheduled pressers short. Prepared remarks are a rarity. He bristles at talking points.

And that can provide the candor and humor that the press and his backers love, but it also has caused problems on Team Kasich, where every day the advisers go out of their way behind the scenes to set something to give him a strategic advantage, and every day hold their breath to see if he blows it up.

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Sunday is the most consequential example. His campaign made a deal with Ted Cruz’s operation to split up three future primary states. It was a deal Kasich wanted for weeks, and the state they ceded – Indiana – was one where they already felt they’d accomplished what they needed on the delegate side of the equation. It helped a campaign low on cash conserve resources and opened a clear path in two future states.

It took about 12 hours for Kasich to seemingly undercut its premise.

“I don’t see this as any big deal,” Kasich told reporters Monday morning. As for Indiana’s voters: “I never told them not to vote for me. They should vote for me.”

Aides would later explain that Kasich wasn’t breaking the deal – there was never an agreement that the candidates would specifically ask their supporters to vote for the other candidate. But it raised questions about an agreement that anti-Donald Trump forces had long been calling for and already feared was too little, too late.

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The “Kasich’s gonna Kasich” reality carries a very real set of positives for a campaign. His ability to operate sans script has led to a series of YouTube-worthy moments of town hall attendees sharing their personal stories in response to Kasich’s message – occurrences that often end in hugs and cheers.

He’s taken great pains not to be swept into the personal attacks that have come to define this GOP primary fight – something his supporters continually cite as a primary reason to support him. His “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land” go-to is always his biggest applause line at his events (and has since been turned into campaign swag by his team).

Kasich’s personality makes for unexpected moments for reporters’ conferences as well. As he walked up to a bouquet of microphones in Long Island in mid-April he announced he was “working on a secret plan to delay the primary so I can spend more time eating in New York.”

He’s also joked about offering at least three reporters hypothetical jobs in his campaign and his White House administration as he deflected questions from them.

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The freewheeling approach also hints that the candidate is actually enjoying himself. Whether sharing hugs, shoveling pasta into his mouth in the Bronx or brushing off aggressive reporters, Kasich’s “no filtered” approach makes him seem entirely human.

It’s all contributed heavily to his team’s theory of the race: the more people see of Kasich, particularly in such a divisive election season, the more his numbers will rise. Several Republican National Committee members – all of whom will be voting delegates at the convention in Cleveland – who met privately with Kasich at last week’s spring meeting told CNN they came away very impressed by his off-the-cuff presentation. But it’s a way of operating that has contributed to opportunities that may have been missed.

In the wake of Kasich’s sweeping victory in his home state in March, Kasich aides planned for a “moment” of sorts for the candidate. An event – perhaps a speech – where he would lay out a sweeping vision for why Republicans who opposed Trump should coalesce around his candidacy. It would also be a sweeping takedown of Trump himself and by extension, raise Kasich up to be the natural non-Trump standard bearer, or at least that was the goal. Top party officials and, most importantly, donors, would settle on Kasich as the alternative. Kasich himself teased the “moment” in the days leading up to the March 15 primary, telling reporters repeatedly he planned to weigh in with his specific thoughts on Trump and the race “in the near future.”

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But tellingly, at an election day press conference in Ohio, Kasich shut down the idea that teasing such a moment was strategic.

“We don’t do strategic things about what I say. Have you noticed?” Kasich said as a top aide chuckled off to the side. “I say what I want to say when I want to say it. I don’t know. I’m building things up in my mind, I’m thinking.”

When he was asked by CNN on primary night when he planned his big unveiling, Kasich initially demurred. Then he said he probably wasn’t going to do anything of the sort. It wasn’t until nearly a month later when Kasich did exactly what his aides had previewed: a detailed, lengthy speech systematically taking down Trump and Cruz on policy and tone, all while offering up his own optimistic vision for a Kasich presidency. He read from prepared remarks. He received a standing ovation.