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Ohio Gov. John Kasich heads to early primary state of South Carolina

Governor John Kasich speaks to supporters at the Ohio Republican Party celebration on Election Day 2014 in Columbus. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a long-talked about potential Republican presidential contender, will travel to South Carolina next week to promote his hawkish brand of fiscal politics in one of the GOP primary’s early voting states.

Kasich’s trip -- his first to a primary battleground this year -- comes as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other possible rivals for the 2016 GOP nomination are moving quickly to hire staff and raise money for their all-but-certain bids.

Kasich, 62, who was reelected by a wide margin last year, has been less active in building a national political presence. But by visiting the influential and highly conservative state, he is signaling his interest in connecting with Republicans beyond the Rust Belt.

Kasich’s two-day swing, Feb. 18-19, will feature private meeting with state legislative leaders and party officials, according to Rob Nichols, the governor's spokesman. Kasich is also scheduled to hold a news conference.

In recent months, Kasich has been quietly making stops around the country to promote a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. The cause has for years animated Kasich, who formerly chaired the House Budget Committee during his nearly two decades in Congress.

Until now, Kasich has avoided Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, which will begin the nominating process.

Balanced Budget Forever, a non-profit advocacy group founded by Kasich associates, is organizing Kasich’s trip. He will be joined by Jim Lynch, a spokesman, and Jai Chabria, a senior adviser, among other aides.

Kasich’s path to the nomination would be difficult, with a growing field of current and past Republican governors pitching themselves as budget-cutting leaders who could expand the party’s national reach.

Bush, who is hosting business leaders on Wednesday evening in New York for a $100,000-ticket fundraiser, is already locking up some of the party’s biggest financiers and assembling a formidable campaign team. Walker, who delivered a breakout performance at a tea-party summit last month in Iowa, recently opened an office in the Des Moines suburbs and brought on several strategists to guide his likely primary campaign.

Unlike Walker, Kasich was defeated in his clash against public employee unions during his first term. Kasich’s efforts to reform state labor laws were overwhelming reversed by voters in a 2011 ballot initiative.

Other potential GOP candidates, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), have made their own overtures to South Carolina conservatives this year. Speaking to activists there in January, Cruz urged them to eventually rally behind a conservative hardliner, rather than a moderate Republican.

Kasich has angered some conservative Republicans for his policies and his emphasis on compassion over ideological purity. He has increased state spending for social programs and accepted an expansion of Medicaid in Ohio under the Affordable Care Act.

After being sworn in last month for a second term, Kasich told the crowd in Columbus that Republicans must do more than argue for tax cuts and link their economic philosophy to an empathetic message.

“There’s one thing that people in my political party don’t always understand. Economic growth is not an end unto itself,” he said. “Economic growth provides the means whereby we can reach out and help those who live in the shadows.”

Moving forward, Kasich and his allies believe his sunny, populist persona and ability to win one of the key general-election swing states gives him a singular place on the national stage. Fellow Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman decided in December to sit out the race for the White House and instead run for reelection in 2016.

“My options are open,” Kasich said last month in an interview with talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I don’t want to run for president so I can, you know, sell a book or, you know, get a television show. But I’m just going to keep all my options out there and see how things go.”

Speaking Monday on WTAM radio in Cleveland, Kasich said, “It won’t take me forever to decide this, but I’m not ready to decide it.… I won’t decide on anyone’s timeline but mine.”