If you were watching Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library on CNN, and wondered at times if Ohio Gov. John Kasich had gone missing, you are not alone.
There were three stretches of about a half hour each in the three-hour marathon where Kasich, sharing the stage with 10 other GOP presidential contenders, didn’t say a word – CNN’s Jake Tapper was too busy setting up mini-confrontations between the GOP front-runner, Donald Trump, and other candidates, particularly former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
National Public Radio was keeping track: of the 11 candidates, Kasich finished ninth in the amount of time his mouth was moving and words were coming out – nine minutes and 44 seconds. That was about half the time that Trump ate up – 18 minutes and 47 seconds.
Did it matter?
Kasich is sitting at about 2.5 percent support in a compilation of national polls; and could use some more national exposure to get himself in the top tier of presidential candidates.
But it’s probably more important now for Kasich to talk to people in coffee shops and town hall meetings in the first-in-the-nation primary state, New Hampshire, where he is moving up in the polls and where he is banking on scoring a strong finish – or even a win – that will propel his candidacy further.
“He’s moving up slow and steady, focusing on New Hampshire,’’ said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “If he finishes second or third in New Hampshire, he’ll be on a whole new plain; he will have to be taken seriously as a top tier candidate.”
Close-to-the-ground, one-on-one campaigning in New Hampshire is important, Green said, “and Kasich is good at it.”
Kasich didn’t get a lot of talk time in Wednesday night’s debate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
He got generally high marks for his performance from national pundits and media, in a debate format that was soundly rebuked for being a mish-mosh of candidates spitting out sound bites and bouncing from one topic to another at warp speed.
“The good news is that they didn’t hurt themselves,’’ Green said of the 11 candidates. “And Kasich didn’t hurt himself.”
What Kasich did with his nine minutes and 44 seconds, Green said, was that he “got the chance to be the adult in the room. He said things that probably made sense to people who were listening – that you don’t tear up a treaty on your first day in office.”
That was in reference to Kasich going out of his way on one of his first chances to speak to jump down the throat of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for saying that he would take the Iran treaty and “rip it to shreds” on his first day as president.
Cruz, Kasich said, “is playing to the crowd.”
“I think it’s a bad agreement,’’ Kasich said of the treaty. “I would never have done it. We believe that we operate better with the world when our allies work with us. Nobody’s trusting Iran. They violate the deal, we put on the sanctions.”
Then, in another exchange with Cruz provoked by the moderator, he said that, unlike Cruz, he is not willing to shut down the government over de-funding Planned Parenthood.
“The president of the United States is not going to sign this,’’ Kasich said. “There are ways to do it without having to shut the government down.”
Kasich said that, in Ohio, “we are trying to figure out how to get it done because we are threatened with the federal government taking all our Medicaid money away. I think there’s a way of getting this done by giving governors the ability to be able to act to de-fund Planned Parenthood.”
Those are probably not the issues Kasich wanted to talk about, because, on both, he sounds like a Republican mainstream moderate – which is not always a good thing to sound like in Republican presidential primaries (except maybe in New Hampshire).
Kasich, Green said, “didn’t try to interject himself…it would have been to his benefit to have had twice as much time to talk.”
But the format didn’t allow that.
Green watched last month’s GOP presidential debate with a group of college students. Wednesday night, he said, he just went to a bar in Akron and watched.
“There are a lot of Democrats in Akron and there were a lot of Democrats in this place too, but there were Republicans in the room,’’ Green said. “They all seemed fascinated by it the first hour. After the second hour, the format started to wear on them; and most people drifted away.”
Alex Triantafilou, the Hamilton County Republican Party chairman, had to work late that night, so he put the debate on DVR and watched later.
Triantafilou said Fiorina “had a good night.” The candidate who hurt himself, Triantafilou said, was Kentucky’s Rand Paul.
“I had Rand Paul as a loser,’’ Triantafilou said. “He just had a hard time breaking through.”
Kasich, though, “seemed like a real adult.”
At one point, Kasich lectured the rest of the candidates for bad behavior. And there was some bad behavior – Jeb Bush and Trump sniping at each other about whether or not Trump raised money for Bush’s gubernatorial campaign to get him to support casino gambling in Florida.
“If I were at home watching this back and forth, I’d be inclined to turn it off,” Kasich said. “They want to know what we’re going to do to fix this place. They don’t want all this fighting.”
Later in the debate, Kasich wedged his way into the discussion and got off a quick riff about his experience as House Budget Committee chairman in the 1990s (“the first balanced budget since man first set foot on the moon”) and his record as Ohio’s governor, touting how he eliminated a huge deficit and cut taxes. At the beginning of the debate, as the candidates stood in front of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One, he reminded the audience that he had once flown on that plane with the iconic GOP president. In other words, a simple message: I’ve been around. I know what I’m doing. I learned at the feet of Ronald Reagan.
He was asked, too, about the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
“Don’t worry about me and Hillary,’’ Kasich said. “That will all work out. And I’m from Ohio. She will not beat me there, I can promise you that.”
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that no Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. There’s no telling how many in the TV audience got it.
In the end, Kasich did the best he could in a terrible format, Green said.
“Once we pare this field down – and it will pare down, probably pretty soon – we will have debates where there are more substantive discussions,’’ Green said. “That will be the governor’s chance to shine.”