Unfamiliar But Enthusiastic, Rep. Kasich
Builds a National Following
By Ceci Connolly
Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) may not be a household name. But those who do know him? Oh, how they swoon.
And gush. And talk in CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points like he does!!!
"He is easy to understand, he is so down to earth," said Helen Tippett of Florida, who heard Kasich speak in person for the first time this weekend. "I felt he was speaking from the heart."
Her husband, the Rev. Ben Tippett, sees in Kasich refreshing candor and a commitment to "the moral fiber of the nation."
One young man from South Carolina proclaimed Kasich "just awesome!"
In Washington, Kasich is known as the hyperactive, cocky Republican from Columbus, Ohio, who helped cajole the bigwigs into passing legislation that trims taxes and balances the budget by 2002.
But he is laying the groundwork for a possible presidential run in 2000. And around the country, at grass-roots gatherings such as this weekend's Christian Coalition meeting here, Kasich is quietly developing a small but fervent following.
"It's that charismatic, excitable attitude," said Sallie Baldwin, 26, from Charleston, S.C. "He's not just some ignorant sheep following the leader."
On a smaller, blander scale than, say, rock stars, politicians have their groupies. The curiosity with the Kasich cult is it breaks the standard political molds; the fans cross philosophical boundaries, span generations, share no regional or ethnic ties. He just seems to collect them like trinkets as he hopscotches the country and works the talk show circuit.
"One member came up to him last week and said, `My mom watches you on TV and she wants you to run for president. She'll help you,' " recalled one of his closest friends, Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio).
Mix Robert F. Kennedy's fire in the belly, Ronald Reagan's sunny disposition and the friskiness of a lovable puppy and you begin to get a taste for why conservative activists enthuse about this otherwise obscure Budget Committee chairman.
"He hasn't had all the rough edges worn off by Washington," explained Larry Miller, 50, a program analyst and Christian Coalition member from Virginia. "The power structure makes it hard for enthusiastic people to make changes; he isn't affected by it."
Inside the Beltway it is a giggle to think that this erratic 45-year-old who is not even widely known in other parts of Ohio could be contemplating a presidential run in 2000. Even close friends point out he can be nasty, overbearing, undisciplined and late because of the combined effects of not wearing a watch and not knowing when to stop talking.
President Clinton, a baby boomer who enjoys Kasich, has been known to muse in private: "The trouble with Kasich is he's like a stereo with only one volume."
But some of the people who lick the envelopes, hammer the yard signs and yearn for a fresh new leader are nevertheless eyeballing him quite seriously.
"He has enormous appeal across the philosophical lines within our party," said Rep. Charles F. Bass (R-N.H.), who escorted Kasich to a Hillsborough County GOP dinner in May. "I've seen a lot of candidates come to New Hampshire with a great line, but you don't get the feeling it comes from the heart but rather from a poll or a political consultant. Not with John Kasich."
Despite his youth and limited experience, not to mention hurdles such as money and exposure, Kasich is unabashedly pursuing a slot on the GOP ticket. The political action committee he formed this year, Pioneer PAC, has raised about $100,000; he is writing a book about do-gooders, tentatively titled "Angels on Our Shoulders," and traveling extensively to Republican strongholds.
"All the options are open. Part of what I have to do is put myself in a position where I can determine my own destiny," he said over a lunch Saturday that was frequently interrupted by admirers. "I think our party knows it's in desperate need to have a changing of the guard. We are in a significant generational change in the Republican Party."
In between getting married and hammering out the budget deal this year, Kasich has visited California, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Georgia. He talks to restaurateurs, Kiwanis and even liberals in New England: "I don't feel there's any place in the country I can't go and haven't gone." Next week he will speak in South Carolina, the conservative state whose presidential primaries turned the tide for George Bush in 1992 and Robert J. Dole in 1996.
"John was in the right place at the right time," said South Carolina Gov. David M. Beasley (R), referring to Kasich's prominence on the budget.
Overall, that has been a huge political boost, putting him on the front pages and Sunday talk shows more than any other House member except perhaps controversial Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But some core conservatives criticize the deal as too little, too late.
"He's a proponent of the budget agreement, and I'm not a big fan of that," said Doug Johnson of Lenexa, Kan.
Conservative commentator Arianna Huffington said the deal which includes new spending and only minor tinkering in the budget process compromises Kasich's image as a reformer. And many are waiting to see if Kasich can branch out beyond the budget.
But Kasich defends the deal and says he's been talking about other issues for years.
"You know what? If it's so easy to balance the budget, why didn't anybody do it for 30 years," he replied. "It was a dream for me to balance the budget. But that's not all my dreams and frankly I got dreams a lot bigger than what the heck we do with the budget. I gotta clue you in, none of the dreams have much to do with Washington."
So on the road, he speaks about nongovernmental solutions, freely mentioning such taboo topics as God, Democratic friends and the environment.
"People have lost confidence in government because of the excesses of our federal government," he told coalition members. Then he continued using what Bass has dubbed Kasich's modern-day parables, telling the story of Mother Teresa's difficulties opening a homeless shelter in New York because of elevator regulations and the tale of a $2 billion military plane that "can't fly in the rain."
"What is it gonna cost to put the B-2 bomber in a raincoat or fly an umbrella over the top of it?" he said to hearty applause.
Kasich's story is compelling and one he has begun to share more widely. The son of a mailman, he was raised in a blue-collar, ethnic neighborhood outside Pittsburgh. When both parents were killed by a drunken driver 10 years ago, he reconnected with his faith in God.
"The only way I can describe it was being in a long dark tunnel with just a pinprick of light," he said. "But a number of people came up to me and said, `John, this is a great opportunity to find out really what your relationship is with your creator.' "
But as Kasich admits, he is a sinner with the weaknesses of pride and ego at the top. And he is a baby boomer who scoffs at his "fuddy-duddy" colleagues.
"Last night at midnight I get back to my room after addressing the Christian Coalition and I get a call from a buddy of mine who's a minister in Pittsburgh who's building a church, and he scored me a Rolling Stones ticket! You know, why can't I have fun?"
Humble roots, religious fervor, hip lingo and a rosy outlook all add up to a very un-Republican persona, said Ohio state Rep. Pat Tiberi, a Columbus Republican and longtime Kasich friend. "He is not what I would consider a country club Republican."
As Curt Steiner, chief of staff to Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich (R) put it: "He doesn't have the congressional haircut."
It turns up in surveys and focus groups, said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse.
"Everyone talks about his boyish enthusiasm, but voters see more," said Newhouse, who has worked on Kasich's congressional campaigns. "They see a guy who is willing to take on the powers that be. This is a guy who cuts across ideological lines and income levels."
But Newhouse acknowledged that when he conducted a national poll this summer, Kasich was "a blip" compared to better-known, more seasoned contenders.
And noting that Kasich has not had a tough campaign since 1982, Steiner said: "It remains to be seen what he'll do in a truly competitive race."
Alfred Tuchfarber, director of the Ohio Poll, said Kasich has great potential and, perhaps more important, the luxury of time.
"His best hope in 2000 is to achieve one of two things," said Tuchfarber. "He either gets his named tossed in the ring and gets talked about so it sets him up in the future, or he ends up the vice presidential choice. The odds are 100 times higher he could be the VP choice in 2000 than the presidential nominee."
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