Ohio's GOP Gov. John Kasich offers update of 'compassionate conservatism'
John Kasich

In the struggle within the Republican Party between the conservative Tea Party flank and moderates, Ohio Governor John Kasich is seeking to position himself as someone who can appeal to both sides.

Kasich, a potential 2016 presidential contender, touts his zeal for tax cuts and balanced budgets. But he also says the Republican Party should be run “from the bottom up, rather than the top down,” and do more to help the poor, mentally ill and incarcerated.

“I think our actions have to reflect our rhetoric,” Kasich told Reuters in an interview as he campaigned for Republican candidates in the industrial city of Youngstown ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections. “So when we say we’re a party of opportunity, there should be (opportunity),” he said, adding that in Ohio, Republicans will “leave no one behind.”

His message is an updated version of former President George W. Bush's mantra of "compassionate conservative." It is unclear if it would resonate well enough with Republican voters and donors to make Kasich a serious contender for the party’s presidential nomination.

But in Ohio, a presidential battleground state, voters seem receptive. Polls show that in Kasich's campaign to retain the governor's office, he has a double-digit lead over Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

When asked if he will seek the presidency, Kasich insisted he is focused on being governor. But he made clear he believes Ohio’s brand of Republicanism could play well nationally.

“I’m hopeful that the things we are doing in the state will influence some of the strains of the Republican Party,” he said, referring to differing currents within the party.

During a three-day bus tour last week, Kasich emphasized caring for people with addictions, assisting the disabled and reducing offender recidivism.

Republican candidates on the tour made stops on Thursday at a factory in rural Richland County, a family-owned deli west of Cleveland, a church in an Akron suburb and an air compressor distributor in the Democratic stronghold of Youngstown.

At Dearing Compressor and Pump Co., which has grappled with years of layoffs at auto and steel plants, Kasich told workers of his upbringing outside Pittsburgh by parents who were Democrats, suggesting his brand of Republican policies can work for Democrats too.

“In 1980, my dad thought about the country ... he voted for Ronald Reagan, lots of Democrats did,” Kasich said to the subdued but polite crowd.

Ohio success could be springboard

Kasich, 62, is a former U.S. congressman who won a tight race for governor against incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland in 2010. After leaving the U.S. House of Representatives in 2001 he worked for the investment bank Lehman Brothers until its 2008 bankruptcy, a role highlighted by Strickland during the 2010 campaign. As he was leaving the House, he briefly explored a White House bid but had difficulty raising money.

Kasich at times speaks in an offhanded manner. Shortly after being elected governor, he said to a group of state environmental workers that a police officer who ticketed him was an “idiot,” angering the law enforcement officers union. A spokesman apologized for his word choice and Kasich later met with the officer and apologized to him in person.

Public employees unions are still smarting over a Kasich-backed law early in his tenure to curb collective bargaining. Voters repealed the measure and Kasich opted to move onto other issues.

Kasich often cites how Ohio has built up nearly $1.5 billion in savings in its “Rainy Day Fund,” how the state's unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, below the 5.9 percent nationwide unemployment rate, and how its credit rating has improved. The figures would support his image as a fiscal conservative during a White House bid.

A new health office has allowed Ohio to reduce Medicaid spending, even while extending coverage to hundreds of thousands of additional low-income residents under the President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Kasich moved ahead with Medicaid expansion despite opposition from the Republican-controlled legislature. Many other Republican governors opted out of the expansion, an element of Obamacare. If Kasich decides to run for president, that could be heavy baggage in a primary, given the antipathy toward the law among Tea Party voters.

Strategists say Kasich would have to play to the middle to be a viable White House contender. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul would draw grassroots support from the party’s conservative and libertarian wings.

But the middle could be crowded. Potential candidates such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are far better known nationally than Kasich and might amass campaign cash more easily.

(Reporting By Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti in Washington; Editing by Caren Bohan and Frances Kerry)