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.”
“If I don’t win, OK. Life goes on. And if it doesn’t go well here, next time I’ll come down to South Carolina, I’ll come down to play golf,” he added.
Kasich barely registered with voters in Iowa and, despite his second-place finish in New Hampshire, his vote total was just half that of billionaire developer Donald Trump, who is currently the Republican frontrunner.
The governor acknowledged his position as underdog, by referring to a friend who asked him how he could stand waking up each morning for the first 120 days of his campaign and seeing that his poll numbers were barely over 1 percent.
He said he told his friend, “I didn’t look at my poll numbers.”
Turning more serious, Kasich marveled at the scene in New Hampshire Tuesday night, where thousands of voters continued to wait to vote, despite the fact the polls had been scheduled to close an hour earlier.
“That’s why you keep going,” Kasich said. “It’s about resilience, determination and conviction.”
Kasich frequently punctuated his remarks with some variance of “As we’ve done in Ohio,” but he also spoke at length about his 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and specifically of the nearly two decades he served on the House Armed Services Committee.
This was particularly so when a woman in the audience asked about Sen. John McCain’s unflattering statements about Kasich’s temper.
The presidential hopeful didn’t attempt to say McCain is wrong. Instead he said he’s mellowed as he’s gotten older.
“When I was a congressman, I was the one that found the hammers and the screwdrivers and the wrenches that cost tens of thousands of dollars inside the Pentagon” he said. “So I had to fight every defense contractor in the country to get that done. Do you think that was easy?”
Kasich said his years on the Armed Services Committee taught him that in life, as in defense, “you want to be cool, you want to be calm, and you want to be firm.”
He vowed not to go negative on the campaign trail.
“That said, I’m not going to be a pin cushion. I’m not going to be a marshmallow. And I’m not going to sit back and let them pummel me,” he said.
During the question-and-answer session, attendees asked Kasich about gender equity, regulatory reform, health care reform and Islamic terrorism.
Kasich espouses dispensing with so-called “Obamacare” and replacing it with a system that better addresses the rising costs of health care and reigns in deductibles. On ISIS, Kasich said the effort to defeat the terrorist group needs to “take place in the air and on the ground and in collaboration with our partners in the Middle East, who will ultimately have to deal with the aftermath and will likely be redrawing some borders.”
As for those in this country who travel from the United States to the Middle East to provide aid to ISIS, Kasich said they should not be allowed to come back.
He also vowed “to finish the wall between the U.S. and Mexico,” saying a country has a right to insist on an orderly process of entry.
Before he left to attend a veterans’ hiring event and a tour of a local steel plant, Kasich told his audience that “A lot of people want to be with a winner, but they don’t want to make a winner.”
“When you vote, vote with your heart, vote with you head, but know that I need you,” he said.
Kasich will continue to campaign in eastern South Carolina on Thursday. In the meantime, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie has reportedly decided to suspend his campaign for president and canceled campaign events in Charleston and Beaufort scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
Sen. Marco Rubio also canceled a campaign event scheduled for North Charleston on Wednesday, explaining that he had to return to Washington to vote on sanctions for North Korea, following that country’s long-range missile test over the weekend.
Rubio is expected to arrive in South Carolina this evening for an event in Columbia.
Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak in Murrell’s Inlet, S.C., Wednesday night, while Donald Trump will be appearing at Clemson University.
Primary Day for the Republicans in South Carolina is Saturday, Feb. 20. Democrats go to the polls there the following Satuday, Feb. 27.
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