RICHMOND, Virginia — For months, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has clamored for more media attention.
Now that he’s one of the five contenders left in the Republican presidential field that once numbered 17, he’s finally getting exactly what he wished for — but he’s finding it can be a curse as well as a blessing.
From winning praise for his hug of a struggling young man to getting criticized for his off-key comment about women leaving their kitchens to help him campaign, Kasich has seen the highs and lows of increasingly intense scrutiny in recent days.
Monday night in Richmond, after an audience member asked whether he thought student loan interest rates are unfair, Kasich gestured at news cameras and said that before now, he’d have called those rates fair as a joke.
“Everybody’s paying attention,” he said. “So I can’t even jerk around anymore — but I’m still going to do that.”
Even in the wake of Monday’s comments about women that prompted an apology to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Kasich’s campaign is touting his off-the-cuff nature as an asset.
“What voters love about John Kasich is that he’s real,” said Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf told CNN Monday.
Schrimpf offered that the Ohio governor will not be one to watch his words.
“He’s not a scripted politician who rehearses the same lines over and over or reads from a teleprompter,” he said, digging at rival GOP candidates. “In an era of robot-like, focused-grouped politicians, voters find Gov. Kasich refreshing. As the stage gets bigger he will continue to be who he is and we know voters are continuing to respond positively.”
Kasich’s campaign has been low-key from the start. In debates, he’s often relegated to the background, in the shadow of high-profile clashes between those like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who have topped the polls.
But at the core of his candidacy is a belief that if Republicans will eventually buy his authenticity — the same quality the more bombastic Trump is selling with success.
Kasich was rewarded by New Hampshire voters, coming in No. 2 behind the billionaire front-runner. But he faded to the back of the pack in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
Kasich’s ability to make unscripted and off-message moments memorable was on display last week at Clemson University, when he gave a long hug and whispered in the ear of a man who’d just said he was “in a really dark place” after a close friend’s suicide, his parents’ divorce and his father’s loss of a job.
“I’ve heard about the pain of people all across this country, and what I’ve learned is we’re going too fast in our lives,” Kasich said after getting back on stage. “Let’s care about one another and not be disconnected and together we will rise this country.”
Kasich says he’s had similar moments with voters for a while — particularly in more than 100 New Hampshire town halls, when he would ask personal questions and get to know more about the voters who had come to his events.
“I got that guy that came from New York to say my son’s got cancer I’m blaming myself, like he could have prevented it,” he said in Columbia, South Carolina, last week. “I mean it was unbelievable.”
But his penchant for damaging off-the-cuff moments was on display Monday in Virginia, when he recalled his 1978 campaign for a state Senate seat in Ohio.
“I didn’t have anybody for me. We just got an army of people who, um, and many women, who left their kitchens to go out and go door-to-door and to put yard signs up for me,” he said.
He was forced to walk those remarks back — but even during a news conference in which he did just that, Kasich wasn’t changing his style.
“I’m kind of a real guy and I think people want authenticity and I’m going to continue to be authentic and every once in a while, have to go back and make sure people know what I really mean when I say something,” Kasich said.
It’s true, that Kasich’s mouth has gotten him into trouble even before the increased media scrutiny.
In October, when Kasich told a town hall attendee who’d objected to the idea of Social Security benefit cuts that “you’re going to have to get over it.”
That came two days after Kasich had dismissed a University of Richmond sophomore who was trying to get noticed at one of his events by saying: “I’m sorry, I don’t have any Taylor Swift tickets.”
But there will likely be a greater downside to the increased glare now that the Republican field has contracted and voters are actually going to the polls.
And so far, Kasich has found himself wandering into some curious territory, such as his riff on cupcakes and religious liberty Monday.
“I think frankly, our churches should not be forced to do anything that’s not consistent with them. But if you’re a cupcake maker and somebody wants a cupcake, make them a cupcake,” he said. “Let’s not have a big lawsuit or argument over all this stuff — move on. The next thing, you know, they might be saying, if you’re divorced you shouldn’t get a cupcake.”
Kasich noted the increased attention he’s received in an interview Monday evening with Blitzer.
“For the first time in this campaign, people are starting to pay attention,” Kasich said.
“For most of the time, nobody heard me. The press didn’t give me any coverage. Now all of a sudden — and I thank you today, you are giving me an opportunity to be on the air — and my message is fundamentally lift everybody; get everybody to work together,” he said.