The greatest gift for a candidate is to be underestimated. The heat is on presumed “front-runners” and one is freed to be candid and relaxed. All that surely applies to Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The MSM discounted him because he ran before and didn’t win, is not heavily financed and does not fit the model of a Republican conservative. His opponents don’t take him seriously because he has a “Medicaid” problem, they intone (he expanded Medicaid, a no-no in conservative circles), and has a somewhat hyper-active personality, deemed, they sniff, not presidential. Well, lo and behold, he had a terrific debate outing and is surging in the polls. What’s his secret?

Voters may be “angry,” but they crave something positive. “People don’t want to stay in the negative. They want to move to the positive. They want to hear solutions,” Kasich told a Fox News interviewer. His off-the-cuff asides — “We can do this,” “This isn’t hard” — and his rat-tat-tat delivery convey energy and confidence. His state accomplishments, which he reels off at top speed, are considerable. (“You know, look, I balanced the federal budget as one of the chief architects when I was in Washington,” he rattled off in the debate. “Hasn’t been done since. I was a military reformer. I took the state of Ohio from an $8 billion hole and a 350,000 job loss to a $2 billion surplus and a gain of 350,000 jobs.”) So here is a guy with energy and accomplishments in a diverse, significant (politically and economically) state. It’s not hard to figure out what voters find attractive. In essence, he is stealing away voters whom Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did not really connect with (as he was courting the right-wing) and whom New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would need to lift himself into contention. He’s the candidate for voters who find Jeb Bush too patrician and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) impressive, but too young.

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Kasich is also winning favor because he is not a hater, as Republicans are too often portrayed. He’s for “traditional marriage,” but he wins applause for a empathetic and sincere expression of support for his children, if he found out they were gay. His values are not negative (no abortion, no gay marriage) but positive — kindness toward others, self-reliance to lift people from poverty, etc. What too many Republicans forget is that “working class” does not mean only white working-class voters. The electorate at all social and economic strata are diverse. Kasich’s immigrant story and inclusive message about looking out for people on the margins resonates beyond traditional, white Republican voters. On immigration, he is devoid of venom and fear-mongering. CBS News reported recently from New Hampshire:

He quickly dismissed a questioner during an afternoon town hall-style meeting who suggested immigrants in the country illegally are a burden on the system.
“A lot of these people who are here are some of the hardest-working, God-fearing, family-oriented people you can ever meet,” Kasich said to a smattering of polite applause.
Speaking later to reporters, he said he would complete the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and would deport anyone who enters the country illegally once it’s finished. He favors a pathway to legal status for such immigrants already in the country, and would not rule out a pathway to U.S. citizenship as part of an immigration reform package.
“It’s not practical to move, or I don’t even think desirable, to try to shift 12 million people out of this country,” Kasich said. “These are people who are contributing significantly.”

He is, not surprising given the era in which he came into politics, the sort of candidate Reagan Democrats will embrace. That segment of voters, pundits say, all became Republicans. But in fact, they and people like them (working class, white, Midwestern, religious) also went independent or voted for President Obama in 2008, thinking he would be a moderate, unifying figure. As a general election candidate, Kasich would be formidable, but how does he win the nomination?

For starters, he keeps a positive tone and ignores candidates behind him in the polls. (You don’t punch down in politics.) That means letting the Donald Trump-lite candidates squabble among themselves. Second, he takes his Ohio record and converts that into a positive, national agenda. Put out a tax and health-care plan, describe how he is going to balance the budget and present a pro-growth recipe for reviving the heartland. Third, he lays out a tough-minded foreign policy — reassuring voters of his foreign policy bona fides.

He’s a surprising top-tier candidate. But then just about everything in this race is surprising.

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