MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (CN) - The battle for the hearts and minds of Republican presidential primary voters got underway in earnest in South Carolina on Wednesday with Ohio Gov. John Kasich accentuating the positive during a town hall here.
Still obviously savoring his unexpected, second-place finish in the New Hampshire Tuesday night, Kasich told a ground of about 300 gathered at Finn's Brick Oven and Pizza that his success in the Granite State was "the light that overcame the darkness of negative campaigning."
"I am not going to run for president pitting one group against the other, I'm not going to run for president by having a negative message," he continued. "I want the spirit of this country to be restored."
What was clear at Wednesday's 90-minute event was that for the moment at least, Kasich has inherited the mantle of Republican party rock star.
So many people turned out - the campaign had previously expected no more than 50 - that scores of supporters and potential supporters spilled out onto the restaurant's patio and lawn, and stayed despite the fact the temperature hovered in the high 30s.
Kasich rewarded their persistence by climbing into a chair set outside the restaurant and giving them a 10-minute preview of the remarks he was to deliver inside. The impromptu performance inspired a burst of applause and had those inside craning their necks toward the closest window to see.
Once inside, Kasich cut a decidedly non-rock-star figure, his slacks, a checked button-down shirt and sweater being more reminiscent of PBS' Fred Rodgers. During his stump speech and an extended question-and-answer session, the candidate was loose, amiable and frequently funny while still managing to make serious points about the economy, health care and dealing with ISIS and its domestic supporters.
The centerpiece of Kasich's push toward the presidency is economic development.
"The whole business of being a public official is creating an environment for job growth," he said. "We want mom and dad to work. We want wages to go up. We want to not have to worry about how our children will pay off the enormous college debt they've acquired while getting an education."
He stressed, however, that in his view economic growth is not an end in itself, but the foundation of helping the less fortunate in America.
"Once we take care of our families, the next step is to reach out to the mentally ill, to the drug addicted, to the developmentally disabled, and to the working poor," he said, adding that he was warned not to make such statements in conservative South Carolina.
But his goal, he said, is not just to win an election, bit to "create a positive legacy."
"Some people try to call me a liberal," he said. "But I believe we have major problems that we need to address, and I don't believe we will address them until we stop thinking of ourselves as this thing or that thing, and begin thinking of ourselves as Americans."
"The way I look at it, if we win, we call the tune," Kasich said of Republicans. "But if some Democrats want to play in the orchestra, I'm inviting them in as long as they can play on key."