In the midst of a primary campaign that has frustrated the fortunes of establishment candidates, it's striking to hear Ohio Gov. John Kasich say, "I don't get angry about many things in life these days." That's even more striking because he was referring to a recent spat with Donald Trump, one of the political outsiders who are leading the Republican presidential field.
In any other year, Kasich might be an ideal GOP candidate. He's the two-term governor of Ohio, a pivotal swing state that Republicans have never won the White House without. Kasich was re-elected in a landslide last year and his approval ratings in Ohio remain very high.
But this isn't any other year, which Kasich acknowledged in an interview with NPR as he was preparing to depart Ohio for Wednesday night's GOP debate in Boulder, Colo.
In this campaign, Donald Trump has dominated the headlines and the polls. Over the weekend, he claimed credit for something Kasich touts as a major victory in his home state.
Trump has been criticizing Ford's decision in April to open factories in Mexico to build engines and transmissions. But Ford says it is not canceling that deal. Fact checkers call Trump's claim "bogus."
The real story appears to be this: Ford has decided to move some pickup truck production from Mexico to Ohio, but that deal was announced back in the spring. And Ohio's governor is proud of it.
"I went to Detroit and had a lot of meetings with the auto companies," Kasich said, referring to the time shortly after he took office in 2011 when Ford received state tax incentives. That benefit has been traced to the decision to move the truck manufacturing back to Ohio. Ford executives have criticized Trump and praised Kasich in response to the flare-up.
Without naming Trump, Kasich said, "Anybody else that's in here trying to say that something they did today affected something in 2011 must be living in a time machine or something."
"Look, we're hearing all kinds of crazy things right now on the campaign trail," Kasich added. "One of the guys wants to abolish Medicare and Medicaid. Another guy wants to deport 10 million people out of America."
There, Kasich was referring to retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who recently talked about replacing Medicare and Medicaid with private health savings accounts but later insisted he wasn't proposing the elimination of the programs. Kasich also sounded like he was calling out Trump, who has repeatedly talked about deporting millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
But Kasich refused to attack them directly. When pressed on whom he was referring to, Kasich said, "Everybody wants me to start attacking people by name. You all figure out who I'm talking about."
In Wednesday night's debate, it may be harder for Kasich to avoid directly confronting his rivals. Especially if they push those kinds of proposals that Kasich refers to as "fantasy claims."
"The public needs to understand that those kinds of things are, frankly, reckless," he said.
Helping the public understand that is Kasich's mission, as he trails far behind Trump and Carson. He averages less than 3 percent in national polls but dismissed those numbers. "They are basically a distraction. It's like a game," Kasich said. "That's not how we elect our presidents."
And he's right. The battle for the Republican nomination is fought state by state. Kasich has not been investing much in Iowa, which is dominated by religious conservatives who would not be likely to support him. New Hampshire is friendlier territory for more mainstream, establishment Republicans like Kasich.
He has been clear that it's an important state for his campaign. But even in New Hampshire, Kasich is stuck in the middle of the pack. Trump and Carson dominate there, too.
So, what gives?
"Well, I think the people are unsettled," Kasich said of GOP voters' reluctance to support establishment candidates. "I think they're saying, 'OK, we've tried these folks and it hasn't worked. And so therefore we ought to look somewhere else.' "
The problem is that Kasich's candidacy is predicated on his long record in government. He talks up his experience in Washington during the 1990s, when he was chairman of the House Budget Committee and the federal budget was balanced.
In Ohio, Kasich takes credit for the state's big turnaround since the recession. The state budget is in much better shape than when he took office nearly five years ago, and the unemployment rate in Ohio has dropped with the rest of the country during his tenure.
Kasich insists that it's not too late to sell his effective governing experience. "We've got a long way to go. A long way to go," he told NPR.
With a little more than three months left until the New Hampshire primary, Kasich has a steep climb to convince Republican voters that his resume is right for the job in 2016.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One candidate who's never held political office has been replaced in the top spot by another candidate who's never held office. Granted, early polls don't mean that much. Yet, it's undeniable that they've been damaging to mainstream candidates - Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, or the candidate we got on the phone yesterday.
Hi, it's Steve Inskeep. Can you hear me?
JOHN KASICH: Yes, sir, I can.
INSKEEP: Is this Governor Kasich?
KASICH: It is, Steve.
INSKEEP: John Kasich was in his home state of Ohio when he got on the phone. He was in the back of a car. He was on his way to an event and later to the airport heading for tonight's presidential debate in Colorado. And Kasich was thinking about Donald Trump. Trump had recently claimed credit for publicly shaming the Ford Motor Company into bringing jobs from Mexico to Ohio. Kasich responded, in effect, wait a minute; I did that.
KASICH: Look, I reached an agreement with Ford in 2011 to bring jobs back from Mexico. And the reason we reached an agreement is because we balanced budgets. We've cut taxes. We are regulatory friendly for businesses. And anybody else that's in here trying to say that something they did today affected something in 2011 must be living in a time machine.
INSKEEP: The truth is a fight with Trump could be a gift. It's a chance for John Kasich to get some attention. He's considered a strong governor of the ultimate swing state, and that should make him a natural presidential contender. Yet, the surge of Republican outsiders has not left him much room to maneuver. He is hoping a good showing in the New Hampshire primary eventually changes that. For now, it was possible to sense the frustration of mainstream Republicans as we listened to Governor Kasich in the back of the car.
Does it make you angry at all when you hear Donald Trump saying that he is going to specifically improve this area? He's going to get the car companies and other big companies to think differently about doing business in Mexico.
KASICH: Well, it doesn't make me angry that - I mean, I don't get angry about many things in life these days. Look, we're getting all kinds of crazy things right now on the campaign trail. One of the guys wants to abolish Medicare and Medicaid. Another guy wants to deport 10 million people out of America. There are other people that say we need to have, like, a 10 percent flat tax, which would increase the debt by trillions of dollars and no way we can get to a balanced budget under that. I mean, this is - this gets to be pretty bizarre out here, listening to these fantasy claims.
INSKEEP: What's it say about Donald Trump specifically that he makes these claims that you consider fantasy?
KASICH: Well, everybody wants me - everybody wants me to start attacking people by name. You all figure out who I'm talking about. I don't need to do that.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK, that's fine. That is fine. What have you thought about as some of the people who've been making these claims that you consider to be fantasies have gone...
KASICH: I just - I just shake my - I just shake my head. It's sort of like I'm amazed that the public needs to understand that, you know, turning over the United States to people who say they want to abolish Medicaid and Medicare, that they want to ship - somehow they're going to round people up and ship them out of the country - imagine the chaos in our country, the divisions in families. I mean, it's unbelievable. Or here, why don't they just propose that we have no taxes in America? I mean, I look at it, and it's just like the public needs to understand that those kinds of things are frankly reckless. They're not responsible. You know, I've improved Ohio by doing responsible things and bringing reform. I was involved in balancing the federal budget by shaking the city from top to bottom. And I left, and - you know, with some of my buddies - and they spent all the money. It's a little frustrating as a citizen to see these unrealistic and wild proposals that have no chance of passing. And, you know, the public, I understand, is looking for change. But, you know, this kind of change - hand this country over to people that talk like that, you're going to end up nowhere. Well, it's not going to happen.
INSKEEP: There is this broader question that there are a number of candidates who would seem to have the conventional ordinary qualifications for president - a sitting governor like yourself, a former governor like Jeb Bush, a sitting governor like Chris Christie. We could go on for quite some time. And the conventional candidates have not gotten the attention that you would expect at this point. What's going on in your party?
KASICH: Well, I think the people are unsettled. I think they're saying, OK, we've tried these folks, and it hasn't worked. And so therefore, we ought to look somewhere else. I mean, the challenge for me is to let people know the kinds of things that I brought about and changed things and brought prosperity. You know, the people in Ohio certainly appreciate what our Ohio team has done. And people just need to learn about it.
INSKEEP: Does it bother you that some analyses of the tax cuts that you have overseen in Ohio suggest that people on the top are getting a big tax break; people on the bottom are getting hardly anything at all, maybe even paying more?
KASICH: First of all, we're up 347,000 jobs in Ohio. We have a diversified economy. Our credit is strong. We've increased education to the highest levels in Ohio history. And I don't know who these analysts are, but a lot of times...
INSKEEP: Well, here's an organization called - here's an organization called Policy Matters Ohio, which...
KASICH: Oh, that's just a left wing partisan Democrat organization. They don't have any credibility with me.
INSKEEP: So do you feel that taxes actually are lower, the tax burden is lower for people on the bottom?
KASICH: Yeah. If you're a small business, you're going to pay no income tax. If you're at the bottom, you get the earned income tax credit, the first time we ever did that. We've increased the ability of people at the bottom to be able to have more deductibility in their taxes. Of course we've made it a balanced program. And there was just a study that just came out from Nielsen that indicated that they're projecting that Ohio will have the fastest growth in income over the next 10 years in the nation. Don't over-regulate. Encourage small business. Reduce taxes. Educate people. Improve the workforce. These are the things that work.
INSKEEP: So one other thing, Governor. I'm thinking about the last presidential campaign, in which there was a succession of candidates who had their moments. And ultimately, Mitt Romney got the Republican nomination. This time around, Donald Trump has had a very, very long moment. It's not clear that it's over. Ben Carson seems to be getting a moment. Do you expect to have your moment?
KASICH: I hope so. I guess we'll see. I'm not a fortune teller. I do the best I can.
INSKEEP: Well, Governor Kasich, have a safe trip out to Colorado.
KASICH: Thank you, sir, and always good to talk to you.
INSKEEP: John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, in the back of a car moving about his state yesterday afternoon. His day ended with a trip to the airport. He was on his way to Boulder for the debate tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.