The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Could Kasich be for real?

Don’t look now, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich has moved into second place in the RealClearPolitics averages for the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary. You can agree that the newest poll from ARG showing him at 20 percent is an outlier, but it is hard to ignore a raft of other polls showing Kasich to be competitive against former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Political observers, including those with the other campaigns, don’t really take Kasich seriously. He’s not a constant presence in national media, so his campaign flies somewhat under cable TV’s radar screen. Critics point out that his debate performances have been unappealing and his unfavorable ratings remain high. That said, opponents disregard him at their peril. His record as a budget balancer and his blue-collar appeal are a good mix for the GOP and independent voters in the Granite State.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

As Bush, Christie and Rubio knock one another, Kasich stands somewhat apart, with millions of dollars in positive ads to cushion him. No one can accuse him of not working in New Hampshire, where he seems to spend as much time as Christie.

Certainly, New Hampshire has always had a soft spot for moderates. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) filled that role. In 2012, it was Mitt Romney. This time around, the most moderate candidates — Christie, Bush and Kasich — are battling for 25 to 35 percent of the vote (perhaps more if lesser candidates drop out and Donald Trump loses momentum after Iowa). As one of the three moderates goes up, others go down. Kasich may now be benefiting from the decline in Bush’s standings (he’s in sixth place in the RCP averages). He may also be siphoning votes off from Christie, who is being hammered by opponents for perceived inconsistency on Common Core, guns and Planned Parenthood and his denial that he ever supported Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. In the last two polls, in which Kasich scored 20 and 14 percent, Bush was down to 8 and 4 percent while Christie was at 9 and 8 percent.

Kasich’s opponents are hesitant to start running ads against him. That might only elevate his profile. Nevertheless, it certainly does not make sense for them to ignore him in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses. Kasich has an impressive record as governor, although Bush’s jobs record was superior and Christie had to battle with a Democratic legislature. He may be vulnerable on national security, especially on his insistence that he would keep the Iran nuclear deal in place (merely policing it) and his past record in slashing the military. But truth be told, on domestic policies these candidates don’t differ ideologically on much, so it may be hard to poke holes in his record beyond national security. It is for that reason that you may see a number of candidates try to bait Kasich in next week’s debate; his own irascible personality and tendency toward self-righteousness may be bigger problems than his positions on major domestic issues.

Now all of the Kasich progress in the polls may come down to a lot of polling “noise.” The differences among these candidates tend to be within the margin of polling. Moreover, Kasich is likely to finish in low single digits in Iowa, far behind, for example, Rubio. If the perception forms that he really is not a candidate who can go anywhere but New Hampshire, voters may hesitate to give him votes that could go to a stronger standard-bearer for moderates in the party.

Despite all of the reasons pundits and candidates give for low-balling Kasich, he seems to be taking up some of the vote critical to Bush, Christie and perhaps Rubio. Remember Christie’s game plan depends on running ahead of Bush and Kasich; if he doesn’t, his campaign may sputter. Bush has to have an impressive performance that defies expectations in New Hampshire, which surely means coming in ahead of the other two. And Rubio? He’s likely to come in third in Iowa, so he surely does not want to come in behind any of the three governors in New Hampshire.

In other words, while Kasich is hardly the favorite to get the nomination, his standing in New Hampshire can become a major barrier to others’ chances.