HOOKSETT, N.H. — John Kasich noticed a pile of winter coats on the couch of his campaign bus as it hummed toward this New Hampshire hamlet. He flashed a look of irritation. “Who put these coats here?” he snapped. “Throw them outside!”
But the Ohio governor didn’t mean it, of course. This was a bitterly cold night, less than five weeks before the New Hampshire presidential primary, and the cantankerous candidate wanted as much company as possible. He had a lot to say.
“I don’t know who these people are, okay?” Kasich said in an interview Wednesday with The Washington Post as he tried to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon that has utterly befuddled him and other seasoned political figures.
Reaching for a piece of string cheese from the mini-fridge, Kasich grumbled that even if Trump loses an early state, “he’ll probably flip everybody off and go up in the polls.”
Kasich is the living embodiment of the Republican establishment’s hope that Trump, though great entertainment, may not drive his fans to actually vote for him — and that the chaotic race, finally, will turn toward those candidates with the most impressive records and complete resumes. Candidates such as Kasich.
“Just because I line up to go to the David Letterman show doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for David Letterman,” Kasich said. He dismissed Trump’s campaign apparatus as an electoral Potemkin Village. “They did an organizational meeting in Iowa and 58 people showed up. Now, how do they get 5,000 people going to a rally and only 58 people showing up to organize? Explain that to me.”
Does he think Trump’s support is fake?
“I’m just saying it’s curious,” Kasich said.
Kasich sounded assured about his own machine, as his state chairman, John E. Sununu, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire, nodded. “We have the best way to figure out who the voters are, and they’ll turn out.”
Then he paused. “Or we’ll lose,” he said, “and I’ll have more to say later.”
There was a time when Kasich was the candidate standing up to Trump. On the debate stage last October in Colorado, Kasich unloaded on Trump as well as Ben Carson for rhetoric and ideas that he said were “just crazy.”
These days, however, Kasich has begged off, and Jeb Bush, the floundering former Florida governor, has assumed the role of chief Trump critic.
Asked why he ceded this turf to Bush, Kasich grew testy and insisted that he would not shrink from any fight.
“I’ve had my say and maybe I’ll have my say again,” Kasich said. “Now, if Trump does something crazy or whatever, I’m more than glad to talk about it. But I was never the anti-Trump. I’m the pro-John Kasich.”
To show his steeliness, Kasich talked about his upbringing in a hardscrabble steel town outside Pittsburgh.
“Let me tell you: You screw with me, you’re screwing with the wrong guy,” he said. “In McKees Rocks, you come in our town, you beat us in football, we’ll break every freakin’ window on your bus. You don’t want to mess with us.”
Kasich predicted, optimistically, that Trump’s supporters eventually would flock his way.
“They’re my peeps,” he said. “People who think, ‘I get screwed, I get nothing.’ That’s where I grew up. . . . That’s my DNA. We didn’t get Steelers tickets.”
Kasich was itching to differentiate himself among the group of four main center-right candidates — although he notably dismissed the analysis that has him competing only in the so-called establishment lane.
He mocked Bush as a sort of dinosaur: “He was a good governor, but that was like years ago, like forever ago.”
Kasich said his record as governor and before that in the U.S. House, where he was partly credited with balancing the budget, was as stellar as they come. “Remarkable accomplishments,” he boasted.
“Most candidates don’t want to talk about the fact that their credit’s been downgraded,” Kasich said, taking an indirect swipe at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “I want to talk about my record. I want people to know what I’ve done and then what I want to do. So when I say what I want to do, I think you get credibility on the basis of what you’ve done.”
When the Post reporters pointed out that Christie is trying to focus on the future and show his personality and leadership qualities rather than the nitty-gritty of his blue-state governing record, Kasich’s strategist, John Weaver, chimed in with a reference to a gambling trick.
“He’s playing three-card Monte with his record,” Weaver said.
“What is three-card Monte?” Kasich asked. “I’ve never played that.”
“It’s not a good thing,” Weaver told his boss.
Kasich was overflowing with confidence that belies his standing in the polls: a steady 10 percent or so in New Hampshire, but low single-digits nationally.
“I’m maybe in some ways silly enough to think that there’s no one yet that I have met in my lifetime that I can’t convince to the way that I see it, the way the world should be,” he said. “Isn’t that bizarre?”
Kasich was unhappy with the media narrative — the lack of coverage of him, the saturation attention on Trump, the obsession over national surveys.
“Guys, I just have to tell you, you guys are so stuck on process and — I don’t mean you, I’m talking you, the [media]— on process and so little about depth,” Kasich said.
Confronted with the reality that engaging Trump is the most surefire way to get on television, Kasich sighed.
“You know what? Then I guess maybe I won’t win if that’s what it takes,” he said. “I have a legacy. I have a family. I’ve got daughters and a wife. They’re proud of their dad and their husband. So are my friends. I’m not going to ruin that to try to get ahead.”
Kasich said people were still getting to know him, reporters included.
“You know what you’re experiencing? ‘I just can’t figure John Kasich out,’” he said. “Join the crowd. You ever notice any of the articles? Nobody can figure out what do we call him. It’s just the way I roll.”