By Jonathan Easley - 08/02/15 10:30 AM EDT
It could have been embarrassing: The sitting governor of Ohio left off the primetime Fox News debate stage in his home state because of low poll numbers.
But in the two weeks since he launched his presidential campaign, John Kasich has bypassed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans who have been in the race longer.
“Someone in that campaign knows what they’re doing,” said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire, where Kasich has leaped into third place, according to one recent poll.
And Kasich’s late entrance — he was the 16th Republican to launch a presidential bid — appears to have been perfectly timed to give him a boost in the polls nationally, potentially propelling him onto Fox News’s primetime debate stage this week.
“The timing was good,” said Doug Heye, the former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “But don’t forget, this is a guy who has had a national presence for a while now, first in Congress, and then as the host of a Fox News show. He’s got that base of people who already knew him from being cabled into people’s homes and many of them just needed a reminder.”
If Kasich can ride the momentum he has onto the debate stage this week, it will be a big early victory for his campaign. Fox News is capping the number of candidates at 10 based on national polling numbers.
Right now, Kasich is alone in ninth place with 3.5 percent support, according to RealClearPolitics average of polls, more than double the support he had at the beginning of July. Kasich leads Christie and Perry, his two closest challengers for the final spots on the debate stage.
A Quinnipiac University survey released last week shows Kasich in even better shape, taking 5 percent support and sharing eighth place with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). In the same poll from May, Kasich was tied for 10th place with only 2 percent support.
It’s the second national poll to be released since Kasich officially launched his bid for the White House that shows him making gains. A CNN/ORC poll that went into the field the day after Kasich’s announcement also registered an uptick in support, from 2 percent to 4 percent, putting him in an eighth-place tie with Christie and Ben Carson.
If the polls currently in the field register something similar, he’ll be on stage for Fox News’s primetime event on Aug. 6.
“It could be that just enough voters are showing a preference for a fresh candidate who can bring new ideas to the debate stage,” said Republican strategist David Payne.
In his nearly two weeks on the trail, Kasich, Republicans say, has been focused and disciplined.
Before he entered the race, stories about the Ohio governor’s hair-trigger temper circulated amid speculation that his temperament was bound to get the best of him. But Kasich has repeatedly shown a steady hand, calmly passing on opportunities to criticize everyone from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.
Former New Hampshire Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen recounted an episode at a town hall meeting recently where a liberal activist tried to get under Kasich’s skin with a sarcastic question about climate change:
“Kasich paused and you could see the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other,” Cullen said. “But instead of throwing it back in her face, which wouldn’t have been uncalled for, he said he understands climate change is an issue that a lot of people care about and gave a solid, balanced answer about the environment in general. The good cop came out.”
Kasich’s presidential launch speech was almost universally panned in Washington for lacking focus. He didn’t go off prepared remarks, preferring instead to showcase the straight-from-the-heart storytelling that Republicans say is paying off in early town halls in New Hampshire.
“He talks in a language people understand. He’s straight-forward, looks you in the eye and has a good story to tell about his life,” Rath said. “He knows politics but doesn’t talk in political lingo. He’s direct and self-deprecating and has the capacity to get people’s heads nodding.”
Kasich’s team has been adamant that the national polling bump is just icing on the cake and that their focus now is squarely on making inroads in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.
The strategy is working.
According to a Monmouth University survey released last week, the only New Hampshire poll released since his presidential launch, Kasich is tied for third place with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 7 percent support in a packed group of contenders who all trail Donald Trump, who is at 24 percent support in the state.
He also has among the best favorability ratings in the field in New Hampshire, with 45 percent saying they view him positively and only 15 percent saying they have a negative view of him. By contrast, Walker has the best favorability rating in the state at 57 percent positive and 16 percent negative.
“John Kasich says he got into this race because he feels New Hampshire is winnable,” said Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray. “It’s too early to assess that likelihood, but he certainly has made an impact there since his announcement.”
Republicans in the state say Kasich’s ads now dominate the airwaves at a time when few others are spending in the state. He’s also pulled together a top-notch political team that knows the Granite State, led by former Sen. John E. Sununu, a well-respected figure in the state.
Still, Kasich still has work to do — 70 percent of those surveyed nationally in the Quinnipiac University poll said they’d never heard of him, making him the least known Republican running for president, behind even former New York Gov. George Pataki, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, all of whom are likely to miss the primetime Fox debate stage because of dismal poll numbers.
In addition, Kasich will have to at some point prove that his message has appeal beyond the independent-minded voters in New Hampshire and that he can take on heavyweights such as Bush and Walker.
“One of the things we’ll find out soon is if there really is room for another moderate conservative in the race,” Heye said. “My guess is there is. Look — nobody’s asking if there’s room for so many social conservatives, and that lane is packed.”