MANCHESTER, N.H. — John Kasich doesn’t care if you don’t agree with him.
In his first political appearance in New Hampshire in more than a decade, Ohio’s scrappy Republican governor declared that real leaders shouldn’t worry about polls.
“If you don’t like it, I guess that’s your problem and not mine, because I’m going to do it,” the 62-year-old former congressman told dozens of New Hampshire voters and political dignitaries gathered at St. Anselm College on Tuesday.
The comment was specifically about his support for programs that help minority entrepreneurs, but Kasich’s blunt style was evident throughout his New Hampshire appearance, a two-day swing designed to assess his political strength as he considers a 2016 Republican presidential bid.
Kasich’s unique approach to politics could be attractive to New Hampshire voters, who value candidates with an independent streak. Kasich, a two-term governor in one of the nation’s most important swing states, a former House Budget Committee chairman, Lehman Brothers executive and Fox TV host, is used to doing things his own way.
“You know why I’m unorthodox?” he said Tuesday, “Because I’m normal.”
In the House, he led efforts to balance the federal budget in 1997. After becoming governor in 2011, he closed an $8 billion budget hole by privatizing and merging agencies and reshaping expensive government programs such as Medicaid, schools and prisons and overhauling the tax code to deliver statewide income and small-business tax cuts. He championed a law that restricted public-sector unions’ rights to collectively bargain, although Ohio voters later struck it down at the ballot box.
He also sees himself as an advocate for the poor, defends Common Core education standards, supported Ohio’s Medicaid expansion as part of the President Barack Obama’s health care law, and won’t rule out a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally as part of an immigration overhaul. That puts him to the center compared with many conservative potential rivals, if roughly in line with potential Republican competitors like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on education, immigration and more.
Kasich is little known in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary early next year. Some local GOP officials struggle to identify Kasich’s home state when asked. Recent polling suggests that 7 in 10 New Hampshire voters don’t have an opinion of him.
“I don’t think people know who he is,” said former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen, who held an event for Bush earlier in the month. “But I think he’s a credible person and a credible candidate.”
Kasich briefly sought the 2000 presidential nomination when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush emerged as a force in Republican politics. Kasich remembers the challenge well.
“I was too young, too inexperienced,” he said.
Asked about a 2016 run, Kasich says “all my options are on the table.”
“I’m not ready to make a decision on this,” he told reporters after his speech. “I would not get in this if I didn’t think I could win.”
But he promised he wouldn’t fade away from the national debate whether he runs or not.
Kasich would face a formidable Republican field should he decide to get in.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday became the first to launch a White House bid. Both Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Bush toured Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in recent weeks. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul returns to New Hampshire later in the week.
Bush’s big brother, George W. Bush, emerged as a political force during Kasich’s first presidential bid. The Ohio governor knows another Bush could do the same in 2016.
“Jeb’s a very formidable political person,” he told The Associated Press before his visit.
New Hampshire Republican national committeeman Steve Duprey says Jeb Bush isn’t necessarily as strong politically as his brother once was.
“With all due respect to Gov. Jeb Bush, I think it’s a very different environment,” Duprey said. “In 2000, Gov. George Bush was perceived as an heir apparent. There is no perception like that this time. And in fact, I think Gov. Jeb Bush has to go the extra mile to show how different he is from his brother and father.”
Meanwhile, Kasich has little interest in making the comparison.
“You think I’m going to answer that question?” he responded to a reporter’s question about the Bush family and later added, “I would not get in this if I did not think I could win.”
STEVE PEOPLES AND JULIE CARR SMYTH, Associated Press
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth reported from Columbus, Ohio.