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  •   Kasich Begins Quest for GOP Nomination

    U.S. Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio
    Rep. John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, heads for his campaign plane in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday. (AP Photo)
    By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 16, 1999; Page A7

    MILFORD, N.H., Feb. 15 With the simple exclamation "Wow!" this morning in Ohio and a $10 haircut at "Joe's" barbershop later in the day here, Rep. John R. Kasich threw himself into presidential politics today, declaring himself the underestimated "Indiana Jones" of the 2000 contest.

    "What you see is what you get," the Ohio Republican told a handful of voters who came to see him on the Milford Town Oval. "If you're looking for something bigger and better, it ain't coming."

    Kasich, best known as the hyperkinetic House Budget Committee chairman who helped balance the federal budget, used Presidents' Day as the official kickoff of his presidential exploratory committee, a step that enables him to raise money and travel in preparation for an eventual run for the Republican nomination.

    The four-day "Explor-a-tour" opened in Columbus, Ohio, this morning with a hearty Midwest breakfast of eggs and potatoes for 1,200 loyal supporters. The breakfast and a private dinner Sunday night raised about $1 million for his long-shot candidacy.

    "I went into politics to change the world," said Kasich, 46. "When they say sometimes a mailman's son can't change the world, they got it wrong. A mailman's kid can change the world."

    Glancing periodically at an outline on a lectern in front of him, Kasich sounded his call to return power to the people.

    "The mission is to pursue the economic destiny of every single American citizen while at the same time renewing and rejuvenating the American spirit," he said. He is a proponent of a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut, school vouchers and private investment options for Social Security.

    At the breakfast, the campaign unveiled a four-minute video titled "Run John Run," which captures the blue-eyed, youthful Kasich jogging, greeting youngsters at a parade and walking his dog.

    "There's one big target: 30- to 50-year-olds," said Kasich's pollster Ed Goeas.

    After two events in Ohio staged the old-fashioned way with confetti, a marching band and signs painted by local teenagers Kasich flew to New Hampshire, where, as he put it, "people smell you, they poke you, they look you in the eye."

    After seeing him on C-SPAN, a handful of curious voters said they drove up from Nashua to meet him in person.

    "If Republicans give him a chance, I think he can win," said Mary Caprio, who compared Kasich to John F. Kennedy. "He can bring all the factions together."

    The Kasich candidacy is built around the notion that the GOP is ready for an energetic, rock-and-roll conservative, who hopes long hours and candor can make up for what he lacks in money and national exposure. The strategy places enormous emphasis on New Hampshire and Iowa, the two states where insurgent candidacies sometimes catch fire.

    "If I die in New Hampshire, I die, period," Kasich said as he and his wife, Karen, landed in the Granite State.

    History, and the current political landscape, suggest that Kasich's bid to become the first House member this century to win the White House is an uphill climb at best. Even supporter Chuck McLaughlin said "2004 will probably be better."

    Steve Duprey, New Hampshire GOP chairman, said, "He gives a great stemwinder. His job is to turn that excitement into commitment."

    But Kasich discounts the conventional wisdom and polls that place him well behind a half-dozen other Republicans. Declaring himself the "Jolt" cola to his big-name opponents "Coke and Pepsi," Kasich said he is "just a little different and a little fresher than a lot of the people that are in politics today."

    Still, he acknowledged some frustration over the attention being lavished on Republican prospects Elizabeth Hanford Dole and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "These are five-star restaurants and no one's been in to eat the food yet," he said in an interview. "We don't even know these people except they have the right name."

    Kasich is taking a political gamble with a pitch that attempts to weave a muscular fiscal agenda with softer themes of religiosity.

    In his 30-minute speech this morning, he attacked "elites" in the media and Hollywood who "spent their entire lifetime degrading God and people of faith."

    But Kasich maintains that "no one should be nervous" by his eagerness to sprinkle references to God into his stump speech. "I don't want religion and government to be mixed at all; it will destroy religion."

    Kasich, who called for President Clinton's resignation in the wake of the president's sex-and-lies scandal and voted to impeach him, said he is befuddled by the outcome of the Senate trial.

    "I was absolutely convinced the country would be well served by all of this; I thought the country would say there is right and wrong," he told reporters traveling with him. "Now I worry a little bit in a weird way we made Clinton out to be the underdog. I hope over time that attitude won't prevail."

    At turns charmingly colloquial and puzzlingly disjointed, Kasich offers himself as "an everyday guy."

    In one long breath at today's breakfast, he rhetorically raced from praising baseball greats Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to Ohio developer Richard Solove, then onto the Rev. Billy Graham and finishing up with Sacagawea, "the hero of Lewis and Clark."

    If at times he seems to lack the coherence of more polished orators, Kasich's off-the-cuff style strikes some as a refreshing change.

    After a tour of downtown Milford, with its picturesque gazebo and a sliver of ice on the ground, Kasich gamely fielded questions at the local VFW. "Hey guys," he said, at one point addressing two dozen retirees clad in boots and wool jackets.

    "When he talks we understand him," said Jim Bline, a 67-year-old retired teacher who joined a boisterous rally at the Columbus airport. "We feel he's on our level."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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